‘Hamlet’: Cal Shakes season closer is brilliant in every respect

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 5/5 Stars » Outstanding)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Hamlet. It might be called the Mount Everest of English plays. It is the most familiar, and arguably the most wonderful. It has been said (correctly) that Hamlet is so perfectly constructed that it is impossible for any production to fail completely. On the other hand, it is so familiar that it is rare, indeed, for a production to be profoundly successful. Director Liesl Tommy‘s masterful interpretation makes the grade.

Ms. Tommy interprets the play as an intimate family tragedy, among people who love deeply, and yet have betrayed and destroyed one another. It is the young Hamlet who endures the tragic consequences of these failures, and ultimately acts as the instrument of justice.

The tone of the production is established immediately by the remarkable set design of Clint Ramos (who is responsible for the excellent contemporary costumes as well). Most theatrical sets are essentially serviceable. In this instance, Mr. Ramos has created what amounts to an art installation so gorgeous, moving and carefully realized that by itself it would be worthy of a gallery or museum showing. It is so haunting that even before the start of the play, one might be moved to tears. It consists of a perfectly constructed replica of a ruined waterless swimming pool, obviously part of a once grand modern mansion. The walls have faded. There is mold on the steps. The ladder is rusty. Strewn about the pool are elegant children’s toys and toddlers’ furniture, once beautiful garden furniture, abandoned tools and hardware, a fallen chalice, rapiers, elegant plastic flamingoes, a plastic skull. The items and the context evoke the passage of time, a great fall from grace, a sense of beauty lost and happiness sacrificed.

The director wisely opens the play with Horatio’s closing speech, in which he says “let me speak to the yet unknowing world/How these things came about…”, treating the action as memory, consistent with the ghostly mood created by the set. As Horatio speaks, the characters quietly come onto  the stage like so many spirits of the dead, and begin to enact the story.

Hamlet, of course, is a ghost story and by treating all the characters as ghosts, this production develops its chosen themes with great specificity. It’s wonderful.

Zainab Jah as Ophelia and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Hamlet, directed by Liesl Tommy. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

This approach creates a peculiar mood in which one begins immediately reflecting upon death and loss and the passage of time, with the sound (enthusiastic credit to Jake Rodriguez), the costumes, the setting all playing skillfully upon the emotions. It succeeds in making the language  and situations seem new.

This is a “concept” production in the best sense of the term, driven not by flashy acting but by an overall approach that is clearly understood by all and  flawlessly executed. Along with the excellent acting, the director gives us one unforgettable image after another with astonishing finesse.

Which is not to take away from the uniformly outstanding performances by the entire cast. Leroy McClain’s Hamlet wears his heart on his sleeve, brimming with emotion, reminding us of the child who once played with the expensive and charming toys we see abandoned in the ruined pool. The women characters are especially well served in this production: Zainab Jah is a dazzlingly beautiful Ophelia, showing intellectual and emotional depths not usually seen in the character. Julie Eccles’ Gertrude is a triumph. Adrian Roberts’ Claudius is as full of variations in mood as Hamlet himself and we see the family resemblance. Mr. Roberts also plays the Ghost of King Hamlet to horrifying effect. Nicholas Pelczar is heroic as Laertes. Dan Hiatt draws a humorous yet moving portrait of the aging and foolish Polonius. Nick Gabriel as the always watching Horatio helps to keep the action clear and easy-to-follow. The remaining players offer excellent support throughout.

This is a production that truly blows the dust off a classic and makes it new and wonderful. You should go.

Hamlet continues through October 14, 2012. For further information, click here.

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“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, produced by CalShakes. Director: Liesl Tommy. Set and Costume Designer: Clint Ramos. Lighting Designer: Peter West. Sound Designer: Jake Rodriguez. 

Gertrude: Julie Eccles. Horatio: Nick Gabriel. Polonius/Gravedigger: Dan Hiatt. Ophelia: Zainab Jah. Rosencrantz/Ensemble: Jessica Kitchens. Hamlet: Leroy McLain. Laertes/Lucianus: Nicholas Pelczar. Guildenstern/Bernardo/Ensemble: Brian Rivera. Claudius/Ghost: Adrian Roberts. Osric/Player King/Ensemble: Danny Scheie. Player Queen/Doctor/Ensemble: Mia Tagno. Marcellus/Ensemble: Joseph Salazar.

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