Thursday, April 21, 2016


William Shakespeare

The Cast of "Hamlet" Awaits Their Roles for the Night
One definition of “shotgun” is, “Aimed at a wide range of things, with no particular target.”  Shotgun Players, a company that played in forty-four different venues before landing in its permanent spot on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley in 2004, once again lives up to its name by opening its Silver Anniversary season with a production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that offers maybe the widest range of possible options than any production before it in the play’s 400+-year history.  Seven actors, all dressed in white, stand on stage while an audience member draws from a skull (but, of course) slips of paper announcing who will play what parts for the evening’s staging.  As names and roles are called, each picks up a black book with the assigned character name(s) boldly emblazened on it -- books that will help audience members throughout the night know who is who and books that will also be cleverly, often with great impact, used as props.  Once assigned, each dashes off the stage to prepare not only appropriate mindset but also the called-for hair and costume -- in all of the five minutes allotted before first words. 

In the meantime, audience members are buzzing; their hearts are pumping; and the anticipation is sky high how this will all actually play out.  Just knowing that there are 5400 possible combinations of actors and parts (i.e., seven factorial ... do the math) and that it is very likely -- even with the long, projected run in repertory for the next eight months -- that this will be the only time that this particular Hamlet will be seen by any audience ... Now that is exciting!  Shotgun Players has in fact kicked off its 25th season with a Hamlet that surely will become the talk of the town, if not the entire American theatre world – not only because of this innovative, risky casting methodology, but also mainly because of the incredibly powerful, engaging, and heart-pumping result.

While each night’s cast is up for grabs, what is quickly evident is that quality will prevail no matter the actor combination due to incredibly innovative and insightful directorial decisions by Mark Jackson.  This Hamlet immediately breaks the fourth wall, grabs the audience as partners, and keeps them engaged throughout.  We are at times like a live TV audience with our main host, Hamlet, pulling us in as collaborators and co-conspirators.  At other times, we could be in a park watching a San Francisco Mime Troupe production, with a sense of informality and familiarity.  Humor plays a big part in Mark Jackson’s vision and again is used to pull us in, enjoy tongue-in-cheek moments in a play we do not expect to laugh as much as we do, and then smack us on the head with the riveting moments of drama that we know, but have momentarily forgotten, are coming.  High physicality, a constant sense of the immediate, and even a feeling of improvisation make this Hamlet fast-paced even when there are well-timed pauses.  And though it feels we are seeing something for the first time (which in many ways we are), the director’s mark is on everything as all is blocked and timed with purpose, with every one in the cast necessarily knowing all placements for all parts, at all times.  Nothing short of brilliance can be used to describe what Mark Jackson has accomplished.

The other guarantee of excellence beyond any particular night’s cast is a production team whose integrated nature and split-second timing are nothing short than astounding.  Nina Ball’s simple set is still complex in the meanings and diversity of effects it affords.  Two red, chiffon curtains slide in all sorts of combinations across a stage that rises above the main, otherwise blank floor, becoming ways for characters to hide but still to be seen, for Hamlet to joke with the audience as he whimsically plays with the flimsy material, and for actors to show impulsive and violent tempers in the way the curtains retreat or appear.  Costume choices by Christine Crook that must be ready for various shapes and sexes to play any part are also minimal but to a person effecting, with sheer-fabric capes turning a man instantly into a woman or with a sash and tie (along with suddenly slicked-back hair but never a wig) transforming a woman into a king.  Nikita Kadam’s lighting transforms the blank stage into a graveyard or into a king’s inauguration with just the right shadow or a well-placed spot of brilliance. 

Especially high kudos must go to Matt Stines for a sound design that may be one of the best-timed, most exacting, highest effect designs seen on a local stage in many a year.  Background pounding sounds and ticking seconds ominously keep us aware that something is building up to no good.  Other sounds remind us this is a live-audience setting with the sometimes flare and even fun of Hollywood.  But it is when a sword is drawn and when the highly anticipated sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet occurs that Matt Stines proves he is a master sound designer and executioner.  No matter how many Shakespearean sword fights an audience member may have seen anywhere – including Ashland, Stratford, or London – this may be the most exciting, jaw-dropping, and realistic one ever seen with much credit going to Mr. Stines.

And then there are all the actors.  Recall, all actors are essentially stand-ins for all parts.  Just think about that task:  Memorize all of Hamlet; know all entrances, exits, and blockings; be prepared to sword-fight (the one thing all seven actors practice each night before the curtain); and be ready to step in at the pull of a paper slip into some of the most iconic parts of all Shakespeare that most audience members already have in mind how they should be played.  

To review the actors means to give a one-night-only opinion; but the particular ensemble combo of Opening Night was so spectacular that it is actually a shame it may in fact not be seen again.  The evening’s Hamlet, David Sinaiko, took a part made famous by scores of others much more famous than he may ever be, and conveyed a Prince of Denmark that was mind-blowing.  At times blasting a madness that startled with manic hands, popping eyes, and razor-cutting voice and at other times (as in the “To be, not to be” siloquoy) conversing with us as audience in a hushed, haunting, and heartfelt tone, one would think this actor had spent months preparing for this part of all parts (while knowing he has actually been preparing for any one of many parts).  What made this Hamlet so impactful by the night’s random assignment is that the obviously oldest actor (he with white hair) played the young Hamlet and was in fact as much like a tempestuous twenty-something boy as one could hope to see, jumping, tumbling, and falling with fantastic agility and displaying all the buddy-buddy behavior with his bosom friends one associates with a guy still wavering between being a kid and being a man.

Another standout in this particular evening’s configuration was Nick Medina who played both Hamlet’s best friend Horatio and the object of his love, Ophelia.  Sometimes switching roles and sexes with the turn of his back only to face us in the next persona, Mr. Medina used voice, mannerisms, and simple costume switches to maximum effect.  His sorrow-ravaged, mad Ophelia scene was worth the price of the evening’s ticket and rivals any this reviewer has ever seen.

As old Polonius, Cathleen Riddle delivered her just assigned lines with incredible speed that still showed much nuance and notion of a father fixated on a royal wedding between his Ophelia and Hamlet even as the Prince is showing many signs of distracted madness.  El Bah and Megan Trout stepped ably enough into the royal couple Claudius and Gertrude, but they jumped into the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern roles with hilariously frozen faces like deer in front of headlights each time Hamlet asked of them some question.  Kevin Clarke was a Ghost that stunned Hamlet and Horatio and audience alike with his sudden appearances and his piercing intensity of message.  As Gravedigger, his interactions with Hamlet were like a comic duo and produced the desired levity preceding the next upcoming scenes of blood and death.  As Laertes, Beth Wilmot got the starring minutes of a lifetime in a swordfight that will be long-remembered and much-talked-about by anyone who happened to be there last evening.

Seeing Shotgun Player’s Hamlet only once may not be enough for many of its audience, based on both my own reactions and those I heard from departing fellow theatergoers last night.  Each night will have the excitement and freshness of another opening.  Some casts may work better than others, but the ingenuity of the overall production should ensure each production will be worthwhile.  I, for one. plan to return several times between now and next January – for the sword-fight alone if nothing else.

Rating: 5 E

Hamlet continues its initial, exclusive run through May 8, 2016 and then in repertory through January, 2017, at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Pak Han

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