Julie Eccles is Queen Gertrude and Leroy McClain is the title character in Hamlet, the California Shakespeare Theater’s final show of the 2012 season. Below: McClain’s Hamlet meets the remains of poor Yorrick in the graveyard. Photos by Kevin Berne
On exactly the kind of temperate night for which they invented outdoor theater, California Shakespeare Theater opened the final show of the summer season. Hamlet, directed by Liesl Tommy (best known for her direction of Ruined at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in spring of last year) clocks in at about 3 hours and 10 minutes, and there are some glorious things in it. But on the whole, this Hamlet left me curiously unmoved.
But first here’s what’s good. Leroy McClain as Hamlet delivers a fascinating performance, pouring his heart and mind into the torrent of words that continuously pours out of the moody Dane’s mouth. You don’t have much of a Hamlet if you’re not riveted by the title character, and McClain certainly puts on a good show, especially when he’s affecting madness to upset the court. Director Tommy does some interesting things with the text, the most intriguing of which involves the famous “To be or not to be” speech, which Hamlet now delivers to Ophelia (Zainab Jah) as he clutches her in his arms. Given Ophelia’s fate in the second half of the play, having her hear this speech is a bold choice.
McClain is a nimble actor with charisma to spare, all of which he needs for a marathon like this. He (and the production) really springs to life with the arrival of the Players (Danny Scheie, Nichoals Pelczar and Mia Tagano). In addition to being a showcase moment for the comic heights and dramatic depths of Scheie, the Player scenes crackled with energy, perhaps because they were so overtly theatrical, when the production as a whole seems somehow strangely untheatrical.
But more of that in a minute.
The other scene that pulsed with life and passion was the bedroom scene between McClain’s Hamlet and Julie Eccles as his mother, Queen Gertrude. The emotional honesty and intensity of this confrontation, simply played out on and around the queen’s bed, told the story of a disintegrating family better than any other in the production.
Dan Hiatt as a pompous but likeable Polonius wrings laughs and poignancy (except when he has to join the ghost parade with a bloody gut), and because it’s always good to see Hiatt do anything, it’s nice to have him back toward the end as an unsentimental gravedigger.
I liked that the ghost of Hamlet’s father (played by Adrian Roberts, who also plays newly crowned King Claudius) was turned into a jittery zombie with gore peeling off his face, but I found Jake Rodriguez’s eerie sound design much scarier than the ghost himself.
So with all these strong performances, why did this Hamlet only come alive in fits and starts for me? I think it has mainly to do with the concept behind the production – or maybe lack of a clear concept. Clint Ramos’ set is like a post-apocalyptic Holiday Inn, a dreary cement bunker and an empty swimming pool littered with junk ranging from chairs, tattered pink lawn flamingoes, thrift store lamps, stacks of books, children’s toys and the kind of heavy-duty lights you see on construction sites. But then Ramos’ costumes are slick and stylish, beautifully tailored modern gowns and suits. I just plain didn’t get it and never felt the production did anything to clarify the characters, their stories or their landscape, emotional or otherwise.
For this reason, I would say that to enjoy this Hamlet you should be fairly well versed in Hamlet before you get to the theater. It’s pretty apparent something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, but just what that something is remains more cloudy than clear.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet continues through Oct. 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free shuttle to and from Orinda BART. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.