Theater: Hamlet out of a hat

Alas, poor Yorick, they blew it well

By Charles Brousse

Artistic director Patrick Dooley and the other folks who run Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, a company known for its adventurous programming and innovative staging, are devoting their entire 2016-17 25th Anniversary Season to a challenging experiment. Each of the five productions—Hamlet, The Village Bike, Grand Concourse, Caught and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—has its slot, after which it is put on hold until the season’s final months, when all of the plays will be performed “in rep” (one after another in repeating cycles).

Although this practice was once common among small, mostly itinerant groups of players and the American Conservatory Theater used a variation of it when it first settled in San Francisco, the associated difficulties and cost make it very rare these days. In fact, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland, is the only company I know of that still performs in a kind of modified rep.

This unusual scheduling has attracted some attention, but it’s what’s being done with Hamlet that’s generated the most buzz. In a nutshell, here’s how it developed: Months before the show’s  April opening, director Mark Jackson and a core cast of seven actors selected from auditions began working the script—cutting the running time from four to two and a half hours, rearranging the order of some scenes, eliminating characters, simplifying the staging with regard to scenery and props and improvising other adjustments. Actors were asked to memorize the lines of every remaining character, a process which required eight weeks of rehearsal to get it right.

Once the run starts, prior to each performance the actors dress in simple white clothing and line up on stage waiting for audience members to draw character assignments from a hollow model of Yorick’s skull, following which they scamper off for five minutes of intense preparation. All kinds of assignments will result—men playing women and vice versa, old playing young, an actor who might ordinarily be the grave digger, now cast as the lead, etc. Someone from Shotgun has calculated that with seven actors portraying 13 roles (doubling makes it even more complex), there could be as many as 5,040 possible combinations!

That, my friends, is a technical achievement of the first order, and the full houses it has attracted (including the one I attended last week, one of the last before the show went on hiatus pending its November return in rep) have rewarded the production with what I’m told have been repeated standing ovations.  

Critics too, have been uniformly enthusiastic, so I am venturing on to extremely thin ice when I raise what I think is a fundamental question: What has all of this added to our understanding and appreciation of Hamlet—one of history’s greatest, if not the greatest, work of dramatic art? Not much, if anything. In fact, I suggest that it has the opposite effect. Directors normally cast actors in designated roles for a reason: Because they believe that person has the right attributes, physically, vocally and in their training to achieve either the author’s intention, their own, or a mixture of both. “Hamlet roulette,” as Shotgun’s approach has been dubbed, precludes any of these because the raw material is always in flux. Nor do I put much stock in director Mark Jackson’s program note that reads, “the endless flood of diverse possibilities pouring out of Hamlet might be far more interesting, surprising and entertaining than any single vision.”

What I witnessed was a group of actors who, with a few exceptions, lacked the craft to make sense of the roles they had been arbitrarily assigned. A reviewer I came across called it, “the democracy of endless possibilities.” I wonder whether that reviewer, or the paying public, would like it if the leads and corps in a dance program were decided by names picked out of a ballet shoe?

NOW PLAYING: Hamlet returns to Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, in November; 510/841-6500; shotgunplayers.org.

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