Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Before the performance seven actors dressed in white shirts and khaki pants come onto the stage and stand before the audience. A member of the audience draws from a skull a slip of paper announcing who will play the parts for that night's performance. There are 5400 possible combinations, with either male or female for the roles of Hamlet and Ophelia. Each actor picks up a book with his or her character's name embellished on it. The actors then go off stage to prepare for the role for all of five minutes. Mark Jackson has had the seven member cast go through months of workshops, eight weeks of round-robin rehearsals, and 14 previews, going to extremes to keep the roles in working memory.
On the night I attended, Artistic Director Patrick Dooley picked the slip of paper from the skull and told each of the seven very gifted actors who would play whom for this audience. Over the next two and half hours this production broke the fourth wall between audience and actors in an exciting presentation on the small stage.
David Sinaiko played Hamlet as an angry young man who was something of a madman. He gave an outstanding performance with his eyes darting and his razor sharp voice. He was one of the most athletic Hamlets I have ever seen, jumping and tumbling through the production. Nick Medina gave a splendid performance as Ophelia. He morphed into the character without playing it high camp. He also played Hamlet's best friend Horatio and beautifully switched roles with his voice and mannerisms. His mad Ophelia scene toward the end of the play was awesome with a New Orleans jazz singing voice.
El Bay and Megan Trout were splendid as the royal couple Claudius and Gertrude and they wonderfully transformed into the roles of ill-fated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Cathleen Riddley was pitch perfect as Polonius while Kevin Clarke gave vivid performances of the Ghost and the Gravedigger. He played the role of the Gravedigger in a somewhat comic vein. Beth Wilmurt shined as Laertes. The swordfight between Laertes and Hamlet at the end was fascinating. They had no swords, but thanks to Matt Stines' sound design of swords clicking, it was an amazing accomplishment.
Nina Ball's set on the small stage consisted of two red chiffon curtains across the stage for characters to hide but still be seen. Costumes by Christine Cook were minimal but effective. Lighting by Nikita Kadam transformed the blank stage from the king's investiture to a graveyard skillfully.
Hamlet runs through May 15th, 2016, on the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave, Berkeley, and then in repertory through January 29, 2017. For information on tickets go to www.shotgunplayers.org or call 510-841-6500. Coming up next is Penelope Skinner's The Village Bike opening on May 25 and running through June 26th.