2017 San Francisco Shakespeare Festival – Hamlet – The Review

Photo Center Lake” in McClaren Park

“Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. “

Hamlet in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Act 2, Scene 2

Almost every year we venture off to the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McClaren Park, close to our house, and take in the free Shakespeare in the Park by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. This year, on September 24th, 2017, a warm sunny day, we attended Hamlet. How to put on a 400 year-old play is something that leaves a lot open for interpretation. The playwright is long dead and the scholars, experts and academics have analyzed and argued about how to properly stage, act and produce the play. Sometimes companies attempt to go the route of “authenticity,” using the approved edition and dressing entirely in period dress. Other times they take more modern approaches and present the play in contemporary garb and modernize the language. To my mind, both approaches have their merit, but combining the two weakens the end product. While Hamlet, played by Nathaniel Andalis  and Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, -Jesse Cladwell, did a commendable job, the 2017 San Francisco Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet overall was simply third rate – dare I say terrible.

But first I need to make a disclaimer. In the mid-1980’s I worked as a musician/actor at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  At the time the theater hired musicians and for Hamlet I played in the small pit orchestra. https://americanplayers.org/plays/hamlet-1986 These same musicians then made up “the players” in the play within the play. Overall, that summer I worked over 40 productions of Hamlet. Hamlet, the lead,  was played by Randall Duk Kim. Also on the stage in the role of Guildenstern, I believe, was the amazing Stephen Hemming who died way too young at the age of 37 from complications of AIDS. Paul Bentzen played Polonius and I think the grave digger.  I am spoiled to have been on stage with these greats. The depth and power of the American Players Theater 1986 production of Hamlet was extraordinary.

But I am digressing. The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet had many problems, first of which was casting. While I have no issues with men playing women and women playing men in theater roles, it often comes off as amateurish. This is professional theater and indeed Polonius has a beard. To have him played by a woman outfitted like a salesperson at Mattress World simply does not work. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet’s childhood buddies and were cast with woman. It simply did not work. There was no subtlety in this pair, and just a small tip: people do not drink from flasks every five seconds – that is why they are called flasks. Then there was Ophelia who was cast with what seemed to be a transgender woman. A bold move but there was absolutely no chemistry between this Ophelia and Hamlet. Hamlet is too great a play to be cast like rolling dice or picking straws. Perhaps it is just the lack of local Shakespearean actors who are men or the politically correct culture in San Francisco. Maybe it is just a really small budget.

Hamlet is too great a play to be cast like rolling dice or picking straws.

Theater is but an illusion and when it is successful the audience is transported into another world and hopefully is entertained, enlightened and perhaps made wiser by the experience. Besides the casting, the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet also suffered from terrible costumes and set props. It was a pathetic mishmash of old and new. King Claudius was dressed in a grey suit with a vest and looked like someone out of a Humphrey Bogart movie or perhaps a retired banker. The queen was dressed like a model out of a 1964 Look magazine feature – a slinky green cocktail dress in the style of Jackie Onassis. Also, there were simply too many people dressed in wrangler blue jeans and modern-soled shoes to give the ambiance any credibility. If all the cast had been dressed in a particular period or even century that would perhaps work, but then “the players” come out on stage and they are in pseudo Elizabethan garb – all very incongruous and uneven. Don’t even get me started with the binoculars, perhaps a hundred years out of place. Maybe it was a matter of budget and the Goodwill store was the only option. Art is hard work, and often expensive. Putting on a play is a monumental amount of effort. The costumes and stage props were a failure.

Soon enough, Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius (played by a woman, of course), the queen drinks the poison (what was with the modern wine glasses!) and without much further ado, pretty much everyone is lying dead on stage. I put an Andrew Jackson in the hat as it came by. Better luck next year.

What a great play! What a mediocre production!