ORINDA – California Shakespeare Festival opened a rich and vivid production last weekend of “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s masterful meditation on the psychology and karma of revenge.
Revenge plays were popular in Elizabethan England, and in “Hamlet” Shakespeare took the genre and pushed it many steps further.
In the play, young Prince Hamlet plans revenge on the uncle who murdered Hamlet’s father the king, and married Hamlet’s mother the queen.
Since Hamlet is a stand-out college philosophy student, he thinks deeply about the implications of his actions, as he proceeds with his plans for murder.
Hamlet feels driven by karmic forces, even though revenge doesn’t make sense in the rational world and leads to the destruction of humanity. He admits at one point that he doesn’t know why he is doing this, but feels unable not to. Hamlet feels he is pursuing revenge because it is in the nature of human passion to do so. The play’s deconstruction of these forces takes the audience into a meta-world of consciousness beyond the grave.
Director Karin Coonrod has created a wonderfully clear and imaginative staging of this very complex play. In a production running more than three hours, she has broken the evening into its five original discrete acts, with a short break between each act.
These breaks give the audience a chance to reflect on the most recent segment, and its relationship to the play’s whole. The breaks help make the play’s story very clear.
Designer P.K. Wish’s costumes give the production the look of 20th century Europe between the World Wars, but it is a world made slightly off-balance by surreal touches of costume color and design. The women, for example, wear bizarre, asymmetrical, big-butt hoop skirts.
There is much fine acting in this production from a relatively small cast of 11, most of whom perform in multiple roles. Steven Skybell’s Hamlet is alternatively rational and obsessive. His Hamlet’s madness at first seems a pose, then a behavior that has organic roots. When Hamlet’s anger takes over, the madness is full-blown.
Under Coonrod’s direction, Hamlet’s usually introspective soliloquies are addressed not to himself, but outward to the audience. This effective device connects the audience to both his suffering and to his fast-paced mind and thoughts.
Suddenly spotlit, Hamlet speaks his famous “To be or not to be” speech from a seat in the back half of the audience, addressing those around him. Skybell’s is an exciting performance and serves the play very well. He passes through a range of emotions and experiences, but the character is believable, and easy to follow.
There are many other strong performances. James Carpenter’s calculating and increasingly wary usurper Claudius is a real human adversary for Hamlet, and not just a figurehead enemy.
Gerald Hiken milks much humor from windbag court advisor Polonius.
Stacy Ross’ rejected fiancee Ophelia is intelligent and thoughtful, then increasingly frightened by the unpredictable Hamlet.
When she loses her mind, she overcomes her inhibitions to speak, and paradoxically is most honest in her thoughts and actions.
Karen Grassle’s Queen Gertrude has several faces – at first a blowzy Gracie Allen sort, then a shame-faced mother and, at times, a bold marital philanderer.
Patrick Kerr stood out in several roles, especially as a humorous, deadpan serving man of few words to garrulous Polonius.
Jonathan Haugen’s tightly wound Laertes stood chest-high in Ophelia’s grave fighting with Hamlet over who loved Ophelia the most – summing up the madness of human revenge.
The noteworthy acting in this production is not just in the spoken word, but in many vivid and exciting reaction moments where characters have no lines.
Whiteface musician Odile Lavault effectively wanders the stage playing melancholy squeezebox music.
Cal Shakes’ fresh look at the world’s most famous play makes its themes, motifs, storylines and subplots all seem new, and opens up this complex revenge story for fresh consideration by 21st century audiences.
“Hamlet” plays Tuesday through Sunday, through July 22, at Bruns Amphitheater, just off Highway 24 in Orinda, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. There is plenty of free parking, and a free shuttle from the Orinda BART station. For tickets call 510-548-9666, or visit the web site (www.calshakes.org). Dress warmly.