Election Section

‘Bold Experiment’ Leads To Startling New Look at ‘Hamlet’

By BETSY HUNTON Special to the Planet
Friday May 21, 2004

You’d think that 15 years as artistic director of the Subterranean Shakespeare Company would have cured Stanley Spenger’s enthusiasm for producing major plays on minor budgets. This is, after all—or, more accurately, was—the company that first baptized the cellar at La Val’s pizza parlor as a near-requisite initial location for the East Bay’s fledgling theatrical groups. But the man seems to be addicted to the work. 

The Subterranean Shakespeare Company is no more; it has morphed into the “New Shakespeare Company,” which is celebrating its arrival on the theatrical scene by presenting the greatest of all the English plays, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. What they’re doing that is new is called “environmental theater.” Spenger describes it as a “bold experiment.”  

He says “site-specific, environmental theater does not use traditional staging…the features and character of whatever space in which the play is performed determine its staging…” For this production, this means that the play’s action is expanded into the significant open space in the center of the lovely gallery at the Berkeley Art Center, located behind John Hinkel Park at 1275 Walnut St. The audience is seated in a single row of chairs circling the action. 

The company has reason to be proud of their production. There isn’t a weak performance in the lot. Spenger has a group of highly talented actors who are well-suited for their roles. And he himself has done a tremendous job of directing. “Site-specific” may sound like just another little theater use of an unconventional location but, at least in this case, the comparatively large, multi-sided space enables aspects of meaning in the drama to seem new. 

That’s rather startling with Hamlet. 

Perhaps appropriately for this particular drama, the same setting which enables so much innovation and richness in the production may also present a problem in acoustics for some members of the audience. But in view of the quality of the production and the remarkable ticket price ($12 for regular tickets, $10 for seniors and children), it could definitely be worth your while to take your chances. 

For this viewer, the production—admittedly only partly heard—presented the extraordinary (even embarrassing) experience of “getting” the tragedy in an entirely new way. It is more than just seeing the carnage of the last scene in a multi-dimensional way—although that in itself is unforgettable. Hamlet himself, as created by Eric Moore, was a new invention.  

Yes, we all know that he was a college student returned home because of his father’s unexpected death and angered to his core by his mother’s abrupt remarriage, but to know that, and to “get” it in a role which is so frequently played by famous—and older—actors are entirely different things. So many of the traditional “unresolved problems” with Hamlet’s actions and inactions make sense if he is recognized as a sophomore in a situation “way over his head.” 

It was a remarkable experience.  

Regretfully, it is impossible in this space to go through the entire cast and comment on the various very strong portrayals. Something must be said, however, about Miranda Caleron’s portrayal of Ophelia. Her character’s youth is flagged by the symbolic costuming—an exaggerated school girl’s uniform—which may be just a reaffirmation of Hamlet’s own immaturity. Whatever is signaled by the costuming, Caleron’s performance in the mad scene is little short of extraordinary. (Certainly the rest of her work is good, also, but wow!) 

Problem acoustics and all, this is a production well worth seeing.