Sunday, October 22, 2017

"An Enemy of the People"


An Enemy of the People
Henrik Ibsen, Adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

The Cast of An Enemy of the People
Rebecca Lenkiewicz has stripped Ibsen’s original play of some of its extraneous moralizing and sidetracks for a slimmer version of An Enemy of the People that brings the nineteenth century story right into 2017 relevance.  Pear Theatre is now staging this 2008 adaptation where costumes denote a yesteryear long past but where language, circumstances, reactions, and accusations/counter-accusations smack of today.

For my entire review, please click to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj100.html


Rating: 3.5 E

An Enemy of the People continues through November 12, 2017 at Pear Theatre at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Betsy Kruse Craig
 

Friday, October 20, 2017

"La Muerte Baila"


La Muerte Baila
Rebecca Martinez
Teatro Visíon


There is palpable excitement stirring as the curtain rises on a darkened underworld as all skeletal souls wait to hear the bells on earth begin to chime to announce el día de los muertos (the Day of the Dead).  Those bells are their invitation to cross over for one day and re-enact a favorite memory, to visit a missed loved one, or just to relish the heat of the sun on their bony faces. 

Rebecca Martinez (with help from the Milagro Ensemble) creates this scenario as the opening of her 2015 play, La Muerta Baila (The Death Dance), now in a rousing, high-energy production by Teatro Visíon of San Jose.  Staged in Spanish, supertitles are available for those in need of English translation. 

My full review can be read on Talkin' Broadway, San Jose/Silicon Valley region: 

 https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj99.html.


Rating: 3 E

La Muerte Baila continues through October 22, 2017 by Teatro Visíon at the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose.  Tickets are available at http://www.teatrovision.org.
 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Barbecue"


Barbecue
Robert O’Hara


Teri Whipple, Clive Worsley, Anne Darragh & Jennie Brick
We are here “to encircle with truth and love today in the open air ... Today, we step in.”  So says a sister to three of her adult siblings gathered together in a city park setting where the main features are a chain-link fence, a picnic table next to the public bathrooms, and a rusty grill ready for a barbecue.  The “step in” she is proposing is “an intervention” with a fifth member of their brother/sister group on this, her birthday -- a sister they all call “Zippety-Boom” whose crack and alcohol habits have landed her too often on some street curb ranting at passers-by.  That the other siblings have their own excessive habits of popping pain pills like jelly beans, downing Jack Daniels like it was soda pop, or going through cans of beer like there is no tomorrow somehow fails to register with them as anything but normal.  And while the one sister named Lillie Anne is zealous to save poor Zippety-Boom, the other three seem more in line to agree with James T’s conclusion of “Why on God’s green earth do we still give a damn?” 

And so opens Barbecue, Robert O’Hara’s bitingly hilarious, incisively irreverent, and deliciously raunchy look at one family, its convoluted relationships, and the individual and collective excesses, prejudices, and self-destructive behaviors of its members.  San Francisco Playhouse opens the company’s fifteenth season with a production guaranteed to send waves of laughter, shock, and surprise while at the same time challenging its audiences’ assumptions concerning race, poverty, and the core family in today’s America. 

Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, Adrian Roberts, Kehinde Koyejo & Halili Knox
Two Midwestern families – one white and one African-American – alternate scenes populated with bags of chips, drugs, and booze, each family dealing with the same issue of a how to convince a sister to enter a rehabilitation center (one that happens to be faraway in Alaska). That each member of the two families also shares the same name and biases of a likened member of the other family as well as mirrors the person’s quirky behaviors, overuse of foul language, and a tendency to talk only in shouts and screams is just the first twist and turn of many to come in this brilliantly written, superbly directed production.  Every time it seems that we as audience finally figure out what is actually going on, another birthday balloon pops; and the story takes a 180-degree turn in a hilarious direction totally unforeseen.  This is a play where as audience we need seat belts to ensure we do not fall out of our seats; for the ninety-minute ride is full of swerves, bumps, and sudden stops and starts.  All we can do is hold on and laugh with eyes ever opening wider in disbelief of the newest revelation.

Margo Hall not only directs this fast-paced, two-act play with incredible ingenuity and insight (and a flamboyant penchant for the brazen and the bizarre), she also stars as one of the two Zippety-Booms (Z-B’s given name at birth being Barbara).  She and Susi Damilano are both exceptional in their parallel roles as the fallen sister who has such unpredictable tendencies for wild, explosive reactions that brother James T -- or should I say, both brothers James T – has brought along a Taser gun just for insurance.  For all the surprise their siblings are looking to spring on each of the two drug-addicted Barbaras (equine therapy, yoga, and a ropes course in Alaska, for example), both Barbaras have some shocks of their own that will leave family members and audience members equally reeling in stunned astonishment.

Clive Worsley and Adrian Roberts play the lighter and darker skinned versions of James T, and each comes hilariously close to embodying one of Lillie Anne’s descriptions of James T: “You are in your trailer-park, ass-hole time of life.”  Give each a beer (or two or six), and even the whiter will probably agree with the blacker’s response to a sister’s plea to help her corral Barbara onto an Alaskan-bound plane: “I ain’t gotta do nothing but be black and die.” 

Pills spill out of their hiding spot in her cleavage while ash falls from an ever-present cigarette.  That is true for each of the two Adeline’s (Jennie Brick and Edris Cooper-Aniforwoshe), and both have verbal venom ready to spill faster than vodka does from her glass whenever aroused by any of the other siblings, especially James T.  “I’ll beat you ‘til I see white meat” is just one of many threats that come from both of their foul-language-filled mouths.  Both actresses are a hoot as they sit on their folding chair thrones huffing and puffing their cynic-filled sentiments.

Terri Whipple, Clive Worsley & Jennie Brick
In fringed cut-offs barely covering what is supposed to be covered, each Marie (Teri Whipple and Kehinde Koyejo) is so tightly wound that the spring is just about to pop as they both bounce all around the park setting, chugging Jack Daniels and clutching a purse whose contents surely include powdered substances no police officer should see.  The f-word falls freely from their lips at a volume anyone within blocks must surely hear, and each actor draws constant audience heehaws for her crazy, twisted antics.

As do-gooder Lillie Anne, Anne Darragh and Halili Knox each has the near-impossible job of convincing her boozy, druggy, leave-me-alone siblings to help in saving Barbara.  But each has a few tricks up her sleeve and some convincing reasons for their cooperation – just more of the ongoing, unexpected revelations that keep this production sizzling and popping like a string of firecrackers.

Bill English has once again designed a superbly perfect set – this one so realistic that we can almost smell the foul scents coming from the park’s bathrooms that border much too closely to the snack-laden picnic table.  Brooke Jenning’s costumes are right off the shelves of some discount store in a strip mall and provide their own laughs even without any scripted lines.  Cliff Caruthers and Wen-Ling Llao’s designed sound and light respectively leave no doubt that we are somewhere deep in America’s southern middle where the sun shines hot, bright, and sticky and where the music is always loud and blaring.

For all that this review has said thus far, the details are only the tip of the iceberg for what really happens in the bulk of the play.  Using what is now an outdated Disney term, this is an “E-ride” that is not to be missed since it cannot be described without experiencing.  San Francisco Playhouse has a winner that sets the bar high for this fifteenth season, and my guess is that any one who sees Barbecue may still be laughing and shaking a disbelieving head all the way until the end of the six-play season.

Rating: 5 E

Barbecue continues through November 11, 2017 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

"The Prince of Egypt"


The Prince of Egypt
Stephen Schwartz (Music & Lyrics); Philip LaZebnik (Book)
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (in collaboration with Fredericia Teater, Denmark)

Diluckshan Jeyaratnam & Jason Gotay
Almost twenty years later, the creators of the 1998 animated film, The Prince of Egypt – Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Philip LaZebnik (book) – have penned a stage musical by the same name as the film.  The Prince of Egypt is truly a ‘world’ premiere as it first opens at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in collaboration with Fredericia Teater, Denmark, where it will next be staged in early 2018. So many aspects of the world premiere The Prince of Egypt are noteworthy, including the assembling of a racially diverse cast that sends a strong message about who really shaped the religions of today -- religions with many more common bonds than they are often afforded currently.  With some shoring up of the musical numbers, The Prince of Egypt should have a long life as it hopefully continues to travel the globe in the years to come.

For my full review, please follow the link to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj98.html.

Rating: 4 E

The Prince of Egypt continues through November 5, 2017 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org/box-office/ or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne
 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"This Bitter Earth"


This Bitter Earth
Harrison David Rivers

H. Adam Harris & Michael Hanna
Grief over a devastating loss unfolds as a series of sometimes disconnected memories whose recall follows no particular timeline in Harrison David Rivers’ riveting, moving This Bitter Earth, now in its world premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.  As one man’s mental videos play themselves out on the stage, parallel and important story lines emerge on a number of levels that grab audience heartstrings and pull at our emotions for a variety of reasons.  And as emotions rise to the point of near tears, questions -- difficult questions -- emerge that cannot be easily answered and must not be ignored.

What does it mean to be a black man – much less a gay, black man -- in America in the twenty-first century?  How much can a white man – even your white lover – really understand and empathize with you as a black man?  What does it mean if he turns activist in Black Lives Matter while you prefer to stay at home and write a play?  What if your budding relationship coincides with the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, the congregants of a black church in South Carolina, and Jamar Clark (the last only a few miles from the apartment the two of you share)?  What if he leaves yet again to march, to protest, and to raise his voice that your and every other black life matters ... all against your plea for him not to go?  What does it mean if you and he love each other so much but sometimes hurt each other even more? 

These are just a few of the many questions that the playwright forces Jesse Howard (and us as audience) to face as his memory flashes through a couple dozen scenes of his several-year, up-and-down relationship with Neil Finley-Darden.  Jesse is a young, African American student trying to finish a thesis that is taking the form of a play about Essex Hemphill, a gay, black poet who unabashedly embraced in his 1980s writings sensuality and sexuality, even in the midst of the AIDS crisis.  He meets Neil, a product of a lifetime of private schools and a wealthy household, who also loves and can quote Hemphill.  The more rotund, soft-spoken Jesse and the long-haired, petite, and totally out-spoken Neil find sparks flying between them over coffee.  Theirs becomes a relationship whose storyline is like so many others of any two lovers with its peaks and dips – except theirs is also interspersed with repeated police shootings of black men that turn their (and thousands of others’) individual and mutual lives upside down.

H. Adam Harris & Michael Hanna
As Jesse, H. Adam Harris gives a performance that increasingly tears at one’s heart as he shares more and more of his and Neil’s story.  His silky voice has just enough Southern ring to it almost to hypnotize the listener, sometimes quivering in its fervor and sometimes lingering a few extra beats onto the ending of the last word so we can relish in the latest detail of his story a bit longer.  His range of emotional displays is tremendously impressive with contagious laughter, coy teasing, angry outbursts, and tear-filled anguish all sharing star billing among his expressive repertoire.  But when he and the playwright combine forces to bring Jesse to a new level of understanding himself as a black man, as a gay man, and as someone who has suffered great loss, that is when H. Adam Harris particularly leaves a lasting impression among a spellbound audience.

Michael Hanna & H. Adam Harris
Contrasting Jesse is so many ways is his lover, Neil.  Michael Hanna captures the nervous agitation, the driving impatience, and the reluctance to compromise of a young man out to make the world more just for those he sees as being oppressed and worse – murdered – by those in the authority and majority.  Is he just another guilty, white liberal jumping on the bus when the news cameras arrive; or is his heart sincere to the core as he heads out yet to another long bus ride to a protest in some far off city?  Mr. Hanna’s Neil is certainly over-zealous, but his portrayal has to lead one to see him as the latter.  He also readily exposes Neil’s warts; and he allows Neil’s fun and sexy side to emerge as genuine and believable.  Together with Jesse, they are a couple that we have no doubt belongs together – if they can survive the angst and anger each sometimes brings out in the other.

While sometimes during the play it is difficult to establish just when the current scene is actually taking place along the timeline of Jesse’s and Neil’s relationship, the excellent dramaturgy of Ari Rice in the program provides useful milestones of the national events mentioned in the script that help keep us on track.  The direction of Ed Decker ensures that the dreamlike sequences flow smoothly and beautifully one after the other.  He and the playwright also understand how to use interspersed moments of giddiness and silliness as well as of tender and sensual lovemaking to help balance the overall serious topics and questions the play raises.

Devin Kasper has created a stunning set that accentuates both the here-and-now and the wispy nature of memories that come and go.  The lighting of Robert Hahn helps establish that what we are seeing is largely interactions as remembered.  Projections designed by Sarah Phykitt clarify settings in wonderful and creative ways while the sound designed by James Ard puts us smack dab in the middle of a gay nightclub or in the heart of a crowd’s protest. 

World premiere productions often have a lot of rough spots in them in their first outing.  As staged by New Conservatory Theatre Company, Harrison David Rivers’ This Bitter Earth – which is a commission at the invitation of NCTC’s Artistic Director Ed Decker – is already a well-polished, well-executed piece of compelling theatre.  While so many new works never get reproduced past the premiere, This Bitter Earth is a story of our time that deserves and needs to be seen by audiences across the country.

Rating: 4.5 E

This Bitter Earth continues through October 22, 2017 on the Decker Stage of of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

"Thomas and Sally"


Thomas and Sally
Thomas Bradshaw

Mark Anderson Phillips & Tara Pacheco
If Thomas Bradshaw were a writer of history books, then that subject might very well be THE favorite of school kids across America.  Instead, he is a playwright who has created a detailed, engaging, sometimes a bit shocking, and often quite funny timeline of our third president and the woman who was the love of his life for his final thirty-seven years.  That she also happened to be owned by him as his slave – although he preferred to call her and his the other of his one hundred thirty-plus slaves his “servants” – is now well known by most modern Americans.  However, few of us probably know the full story as so meticulously outlined in this three-plus-hour world premiere of Thomas and Sally now on the Marin Theatre Company stage.  The “n-word” spoken freely, a founding father prancing around in only his birthday suit, and statements like “Africans may not have the intelligence of the white race but you’ll not find people with bigger hearts” are all part of this telling that cannot help but make the audience squirm uncomfortably.  But after taking a few gulps of air and letting the story further unfold, audience members also cannot help but gain new insights about not only our collective history and one of the best-loved of our presidents, but also new insights into some of the messes we are in today that have their roots in yesteryears long past.

Sitting in their dorm room, two roomies struggle with the demands of college life.  Karen must finish a history paper due tomorrow, and Simone is seeking a private place to relieve tension via her dildo that Karen borrowed without asking (and did not clean).  When Karen (Rosie Hallett) discovers that Simone (Ella Dershowitz) is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson (the subject of her paper) and his slave Sally Heming, she is ecstatic and asks for more details of the family history.  Imagine her shock but soon fascination as closet doors open and that history begins to play out right in their dorm room. 

The time is suddenly 1735, and the owner of Sally’s grandma (Betty Hemings) – the white owner, Captain John Hemings, actually being Sally’s grandfather – is unsuccessfully trying to buy her from a plantation owner.  Time jumps ahead twenty-six years, and Betty is now caring for the motherless Martha Wayles (who will become Thomas Jefferson’s wife) while also becoming the mother of a number of children, several whose father is also Martha’s father, John.  The last of these is Sally, born at Monticello, having come there as part of the marriage bounty of over 100 slaves that Jefferson acquired when he married Martha Wayles.

Charlette Speigner, Ella Dershowitz & Rosie Hallett
That the bloodlines and relationships are all very intertwined in what could be a confusing mishmash is not an issue in the fast-paced parade of characters that continue to come out of closet doors of Karen’s and Simone’s dorm room.  Simone herself dons in front of us dresses of the eighteenth century and becomes Jefferson’s bride, Martha. Karen watches in full wide-eyed fascination from whatever perch on desk, shelf, or corner she can find to have a good view while also staying out of the way of her term paper being written right before her eyes.

Fifty-plus years of early American history continue to unfold before us as names familiar (Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams) and unknown (mostly slaves owned by Jefferson) appear in scene after scene where the story of Thomas and Sally slowly takes shape as a love story both sweet and sad.  Along the way, many ‘facts’ and lessons of both history and civics are pitched by the characters, making Mr. Bradshaw’s play at times feel like an experimental learning device aimed at normally bored high school students.  This is especially true during some of the conversations between the two college roomies where mini-lectures of Simone feel like footnotes to fill Karen (and us) in on some of the era’s details we may not know.  But, just when one feels maybe I should be taking notes in case there is a test, out of the closet doors come a whole new set of interesting characters who bring more intrigue to this mixture of families, relationships, and lovers who all somehow helped shape our country’s foundations.

Tara Pacheco
Tara Pacheco takes the Sally Hemings who most modern Americans know in name only and brings her to full life as a young woman torn between her genuine love for the man who owns her as property and her driving desire to be free to pursue her own unfettered life.  Ms. Pacheco is brilliant in portraying both halves of Sally’s internal battle with much credible nuance.  Small shifts in her countenance reveal the complex, strong character of Sally’s personality as she weighs the pull of soft caresses and erotic pleasure and the counter pull of assuming her place in society as the intelligent, strong-willed woman she is apart from Jefferson.  (That latter choice becomes a possible reality for her during their years in France while Jefferson serves as the U.S. minister to a country that is willing to award any slave on its soil complete freedom.)

Mark Anderson Phillips & Cameron Matthews
Equally stellar is Mark Anderson Phillips as Sally’s owner and lover, Thomas Jefferson.  With a new Mozart tune – Mozart being the current rave in American Revolutionary times – always only a hum away as he walks about, his Jefferson is slightly quirky and awkward with teenage boy mannerisms in a body of a thirty-something man.  Prone to bouts of silly laughter and sudden outbursts of enthusiastic declarations, this Jefferson is also clearly smitten with Sally Hemings in ways seen in his soft touches, kind voice, and starry eyes.  But Mr. Phillips’ Jefferson is also a troubling conundrum as he declares himself “the foremost abolitionist of the world” who sees slavery as a “moral blotch on our nature” but who cannot bring himself to free his own treasury of slaves, including the woman he most evidently loves.  In the end, Mark Anderson Phillips complicates in wonderful ways this American hero of heroes, leaving us questioning any tendencies toward our own blind admiration while also still finding ourselves liking this icon in new and different ways.

Tara Pacheco & William Hodgson
The cast of this premiere delivers excellence in all the many roles portrayed, with some members taking on as many as five persona.  William Hodgson is Sally’s brother, James Hemings, who gains the chance to be trained as a French chef and the opportunity to become schooled in the French Revolution concepts of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.  His James lights up with energetic zeal as he strives to please the man who keeps telling him, “Think of me as your father.”  But his eyes also show much skepticism of that same man’s true intentions since the supposed father is still his master. Those same eyes are also drawn longingly to a possible horizon where freedom exists in France to open his own restaurant.

Robert Sicular & Mark Anderson Phillips
Another Hemings sibling, Robert, is ably played by Cameron Matthews – a handsome and eager-to-please valet of Jefferson’s who replaces ol’ Jupiter, a sweet but less-educated butler (L. Peter Callender) who is literally put out to the pasture (or at least the stables) by a master who is more enthralled by the younger man.  Scott Coopwood and Robert Sicular each take on multiple roles, including respectively John Adams and Benjamin Franklin – roles that allow them to reenact a similarly funny scene from the musical 1776 where the two convince a reluctant Jefferson to pen single-handedly the Declaration of Independence.  Charlette Speigner provides a poignant picture of what it meant to be a slave woman, Betty Hemings, who sires child after child with her owner/lover, showing both the treachery and the tenderness of the situation Fate placed her.

As he has time and again on the Marin Theatre stage (Guards at the Taj, Anne Boleyn, The Whipping Man), Jasson Minadakis once again proves his skills as a master director as he orchestrates without a hitch two time periods separated by 250 years yet often played simultaneously.  He also ensures the fifty years of history flies by seemingly in a flash, even though the play itself is long enough to require two intermissions. 

Into all the serious and even troubling themes and threads of the play, he and his creative team have woven much humor, often tongue-in-cheek.  Sean Fanning’s scenic design is a big player in that accomplishment, with hot-breathing lovers being wheeled out in an upright bed or with members of a century long past using a dorm room’s desk as a cutting block (aided by a nearby, electric, gooseneck lamp) or pulling out a pitcher of ale from the dorm ‘frig. 

Ashley Holvick has performed miracles with costumes that bring authenticity of era but that also are often donned and de-clothed while characters are shifting both roles and centuries.  Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design creates its own magic, with audience members having to look twice to be sure the still fingers of Jefferson are actually not playing the violin perched under his chin.  Finally, Mike Post’s lighting design helps change a dorm room’s stark atmosphere into the atmospheres of a number of other locations and time periods – from European parlors to Monticello bedrooms.

Fifty years is a lot of time to cover in one play -- especially with all the convoluted family trees, bedroom intricacies, moral dilemmas, and famed historical figures contained within Thomas Bradshaw’s Thomas and Sally.  However, as produced in world premiere by Marin Theatre Company, the years are literally a few minutes each in length while being full of depth, intrigue, and thought-provoking moments.

Rating: 5 E

Thomas and Sally continues in world premiere through October 22, 2017 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Monday, October 2, 2017

"Hamlet"


 Hamlet
William Shakespeare

John Douglas Thompson
That something is “rotten in Denmark” becomes immediately obvious in the opening minutes of American Conservatory Theatre’s current production of Hamlet.  Black-clad men climb from the bowels of some underground passageway, with streaks of stark light emanating from the subterranean world onto the towering walls of what may be the interior or exterior of buildings in bad repair.  David Israel Reynoso’s scenic design is massively ugly and foreboding with its stained walls of gray concrete, huge windows with cracked and missing panes, dark corners, and a large freight opening with a heavy plastic curtain separating what we see from what we can not quite ascertain on the other side.  The lighting of James F. Ingalls creates atmospheres of ominous colors – purple, green, red – and shadows lurk gigantic in the heights of the walls.  The time period is in question in a world that looks permanently damaged from past, bad decisions.  As a king and queen and members of the court emerge in present-day clothes (also designed by Mr. Reynoso), a gold, modern-day set of chairs for the royal couple and a chandelier that may have come from Crate and Barrel or Z Gallerie are the only bright spots in an otherwise dreary scene.  What is amazing is that no one in the royal court seems in the least surprised or bothered by the totally dismal surroundings.  This is the normal world as they now know it.

And so Carey Perloff opens her last season as A.C.T.’s Artistic Director to direct her first Hamlet and the first of the Company since 1990.  This is a play that most of us in the audience have surely seen one-to-many other times. (I lost my own count during my 30+ years of going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.).  However, this soon becomes a production we each know will takes its own stand as unique, important, and different from any other we may have seen. 

Domenique Lozano & John Douglas Thompson
Particularly striking is Hamlet himself, for he is not the usual (at least for modern audiences) young, handsome man barely shaving that often graces that part.  This Hamlet is the much-accomplished and well-seasoned John Douglas Thompson, an actor beginning his sixth decade of life.  He brings to this Hamlet a maturity and set of life experiences that redefine Hamlet’s feigned madness, his abhorrence of the marriage of his mother to his uncle (only two months after his kingly father has died), and his decision-making process whether and how to seek revenge once he suspects their foul play against his father.  The famous lines of Shakespeare (such as the “to be or not to be”) flow from Mr. Thompson not as part of a memorized script or dramatized reading, but as natural-sounding reflections and considerations of a man who is actually quite in control amidst the chaos and deteriorating environment around him.  He is calculated and cunning in ways that speak of a man who knows himself well.  He can make fools of his college buddies-of-sorts, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while keeping them in the dark of his true intentions or state of mind.  He is willing to scorn his uncle/now-father with a confidence of statement that is more of a peer than a younger son or subject.  And when he grabs his mother’s face and forces her to look into the unseen faces of both her dead and her present husbands to compare their nobilities (or lack there-of in the latter’s case), Mr. Thompson does so with a sense of inner power and surety that a young son in his twenties would probably not have. 

The Hamlet that Mr. Thompson shapes and forms before us is not the tempestuous, temper-prone boy becoming man that one often sees in the twenty-somethings portraying the Prince of Denmark. This is a Hamlet who grieves both for his betrayed father as well as for his own sure fatal fate to revenge that father – a fate where his own plans of love and eventual rule are now known as impossible and a fate that he seems to understand is just another sign of a world permanently scarred by the acts of the people within it – including himself.

Stephen Anthony Jones & Domenique Lozano
Surrounding John Douglas Thompson is an equally impressive cast, from minor to major roles. When we meet Queen Gertrude, the slightly up-tilted head of Domenique Lozano ensures her eyes lower to look in slight disdain at all those lower in caste than she.  Her face puckers in pride as she listens to the royal decrees and braggadocio of her new husband and former brother-in-law.  Later as her own guilt makes its way into her now wrinkled face, she degenerates before us into a queen barely holding onto her own sanity while trying to control and console those around her who are fast losing theirs.  Ms. Lozano is superb in every respect as the queen whose own doom is only a matter of time, as can be seen in eyes that increasingly shout the fear felt within.

As both the live and the dead kings – as both the perpetrator, Claudius, and the victim, Hamlet’s father – Steven Anthony Jones is bombastic and blow-hardy in voice and demeanor as the former king and ethereally spooky as the latter king.  When the Ghost King finally speaks to Hamlet, his vocalizes the hate for his brother and the abomination of the murderous act with a haunting yet booming voice while moving little other his speaking lips.  The visceral tension generated is later matched by the now-Claudius confessing in an unholy prayer his newly found agony and self-doubt surrounding the fratricide he has committed to gain the crown and his bride. 

Dan Hiatt & John Douglas Thompson
As is true in most Shakespearean tragedies and is certainly true in this Hamlet as directed by Carey Perloff, there are many moments of quick and even sustained humor – both in specific characterizations and in quick tongue-in-cheek smirks by Hamlet himself.  Dan Hiatt is particularly memorable as the bowtie-donned Polonius, a lord in the king’s court who is wont to lecture on and on (and on) like a college professor, exacting his spoken “t’s” with consonant clarity and dotting all his “i’s” to provide more than enough details and examples on whatever the present subject. 

Graham Beckel & Teddy Spencer
As the Gravediggers, Graham Beckel’s and Teddy Spencer’s interactions with Hamlet are like those of comic trio on a Vaudeville stage and produce the desired levity preceding the next, upcoming scenes of blood and death. 
Mr. Becket is also part of the troupe of traveling thespians (along with Peter Fanone and Adrianna Mitchell) that get to draw laughs with their songs and silly play (and piano playing) before they shift to enact Hamlet’s planned test to see if the words of the Ghost are those of a devil or in fact, of his father.  (That shift in the play-within-a-play’s mood is given startling announcement by the honkey-style piano music composed by David Coulter shifting to take on screeching, shocking reverberations as just the strings of the upright piano are played and pounded.)

Vincent J. Randazzo and Teddy Spencer bring an aw-shucks, collegiate quality to their respective Guildenstern and Rosencrantz roles and are fun to watch as they try to gauge how to react first to Prince Hamlet and then to King Claudius in order to stay in the good graces of each.  As they begin to side more with the latter, their shift to the ‘dark side’ makes their bumbling manners more sinister as the two maintain a certain comedy while clearly also being calculative in how to do whatever it takes (including enabling a possible murder of Hamlet) to stay in the King’s graces.

In no way funny but altogether evocatively beautiful and pitiful at the same time is the performance of Rivka Borek as Polonius’s daughter and Hamlet’s would-be fiancé, Ophelia.  When first introduced, her Ophelia is clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable by her father’s praises and the royal couple’s attention on her.  Later, as she mourns her own father’s demise at the hands of her intended, the truly crazed and sorrow-ravaged Ophelia is actually uncomfortable to watch as Ms. Borek becomes a young woman wandering in see-through negligee, singing a nonsensical, bawdy song.  Actor, director, and costume designer collaborate brilliantly to bring the totally depressed Ophelia back in a later scene now dressed in her dead father’s suit, giving gifts to the stunned court of his bowties as if they were recently gathered herbs.  The Ophelia created by Ms. Borek is altogether startling, sad, and stunning.

Less successful in his assigned portrayal but certainly still adequate is Anthony Fusco as Hamlet’s loyal friend, Horatio (and the only person of the court left standing alive at the play’s end).  He so underplays the part that his Horatio fades into the background when compared to those around him. 

Overplaying is more the issue with Teague F. Bougere’s Laertes, the revenge-seeking son of Polonius. Mr. Bougere does not find much variation in his loud, bold, and almost bully approach in portraying the son crazed in his own way by the grief he suffers.  Where his Laertes does shine is in the final duel with Hamlet, a fight with Filipino sticks (called eskrima) whose metallic crashes and violent swings and hits have been expertly choreographed by fight director Jonathan Rider.

When all is said and done in this three-plus-hour version of Hamlet and as the bodies lay strewn in the stage’s dark shadows of the glowering walls, we as audience know that Carey Perloff and American Conservatory Theatre have successfully created a production of the oft-staged classic of classics.  This Hamlet will be long-remembered both for its startling staging and for its Prince who is older, wiser, and thus more unsettling than many of those preceding him.

Rating: 4.5 E

Hamlet continues through October 15, 2017 at American Conservatory Theatre, The Geary Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne