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Hamlet: Blood on the Brain.

Hamlet: Blood on the Brain Presented by Intersection, Resident Theatre Company Campo Santo, and California Shakespeare Theatre at Intersection for the Arts Theatre, San Francisco, California. October 26-November 20, 2006. Script by Naomi Iizuka. Directed by Jonathan Moscone. Set by James Faerron. Costumes by Raquel Barreto. Lighting by Russell Champa. Sound by Ted Crimy. Properties by Kehran Barbour. With Margo Hall (G), Donald E. Lacy Jr. (C, Chorus), Ricky Marshall (Ghost of H's Father, Chorus), Ryan Peters (O, Chorus), Sean San Jose (H), and Tommy Shepherd (L, Chorus).

The California Shakespeare Theatre joined with Intersection Theatre's Campo Santo company in producing this new version of Hamlet by Naomi Iizuka, set in modern Oakland, California, in the violent year of 1989. One of CST's goals is to create new plays inspired by classic literature, as part of its New Works/New Communities program. San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts concentrates on new and experimental work. Naomi Iisuka's works have been staged nationally and internationally. The director, Jonathan Moscone, in 2003 redeployed Julius Caesar to evoke his father's assassination as San Francisco's mayor. This production of Hamlet resulted from three years of community engagement via interviews with Oakland residents, historians, artists, and community groups such as Alameda County Juvenile Hall, and Oakland public schools. It was a fresh attempt to expand CST'S outdoor summer program at Orinda through a winter season, using a small indoor theatre in an urban setting.

The script avoided close verbal and structural parallels, and attempted a bold re-siting of the relationships in Shakespeare's tragedy, mutated to suit modern Oakland's gangland culture and high murder rate. The values of this gangland replaced those of the saga society of Shakespeare's Old Hamlet. Each omerta--of the Scandinavian eddas and of our gangland culture--involves a systematic brutality, which the plays' heroes strive to transcend.

The stage was bare throughout. The back wall had a sliding door, flanked by an open corridor stage left, which ran by the audience to the theatre entrance, providing access to the stage. The script used the brutal language of street gangs with fuck and shit in nearly every sentence, challenging to any middle-class theatre-goers, but amusingly authentic to the largely youthful mix of ethnic, economic, and age groups. As in Shakespeare, music, song, and dance were crucial, with G[ertrude] excelling in these skills at a party scene that included a choric rap session by the four male characters. The music was harsh but apt, like the garish ballroom lighting and abrupt blackouts.

The characters, with single-letter identifications, were compressed to six through fusions and doublings. L[aertes], brother of O[phelia], a compound of Horatio, Rosencranz, and Guildenstern, killed his sister by mistake while trying to execute H. on the orders of C[laudius]. Analogues to Shakespeare's play were witty: H[amlet] "graduated" not from some modern radical Wittenberg (say, U.C. Berkeley), but from prison (San Quentin, perhaps). H wryly refused to follow the Ghost's advice to kill C, because he did not wish to spend eternity in hell with him, as a fellow murderer! The Ghost of H's dead step-father returned as the "gravedigger" sweeping up human ashes, including O's, at a crematorium. At O's funeral, African-American evangelical religion plausibly surfaced, providing a traditional ethical norm through the ritual's use of the 23rd Psalm, which served as a salutary corrective to the otherwise amoral characterization. Finally, H and his "friend" L returned to jail for a post-graduate term after working together to kill C. The re-jailed H cathartically confronted ghosts of the four dead characters in a scene reminiscent of Richard III's night before Bosworth.

The play was performed at great pace in ninety minutes without interval, and rose from brutal incidents fitting a police blotter to a subtler questioning of Oakland's mob-ethos. This came partly from the religious elements in G's personality, a role performed with great virtuosity by Margo Hall, including drastic shifts of mood and talented dancing. G's character was defined more by her intense love of her son H, than respect for any of her three husbands: H's long-lost Panamanian natural father; his deeply-committed ghostly step-father; and the crudely macho C. G was resilient enough to survive all three, and even replace them for a time as gang leader.


The other female character, O, was also more positive and dynamic than Ophelia, initiating her relationship with H. She elicited his desire to escape gang-life: "You ever wonder how we could leave the past in the past? Walk a different road?" In the rap session, when male characters complacently recapped their Oakland experiences, O denounced their chauvinism: "Ain't one real man in here." Her accidental death reinforced G's commitment to evangelical religion's transcendence of sin through the psalm at O's funeral. Incidentally, the actor playing C, Donald Lacy, lost his own sixteen-year-old daughter to Oakland violence in 1997.

Nevertheless, the Ghost insisted on H's right to succeed him violently as drug king: "It ain't all gone. It's yours to take. It's yours to have. It's your birthright." In the end H shared the stoicism of Hamlet: "Did this all play out like it was supposed to play out? Did it go down like they said it was gonna go down? ... That's something beyond me, beyond us all ... Fate, that's what it is. Ain't nothing to do, but do that dance ... What's gonna come is gonna come. Go ahead." But the chastened young men, H and L, survived, more like Cassio, Malcolm, and Edgar, than Hamlet. As the ghost of G advised H: "There's nothin' to look back on. You ain't gotta look over your shoulder no more. There ain't nobody you gotta worry about no more but you."


Did this production illuminate Shakespeare's script? It gave Gertrude a prominence inviting reconsideration of her subordinate role in most productions. It reinforced a sense that the play's archetypal quality could be adapted to fit a society lacking resonance with either ancient Scandinavia or Elizabethan London. More significant was that the original play was made accessible for embattled Oakland. The twice-extended run, serving largely African-American audiences, suggested that non-academic spectators could accept that classics illuminate modern society--surely the purpose of all revivals and re-workings. The production marked progress in the assimilation of past civilization's anxiety about violence into our own ruinously turbulent world.

HUGH MACRAE RICHMOND, University of California, Berkeley
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Author:Richmond, Hugh Macrae
Publication:Shakespeare Bulletin
Article Type:Theater review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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