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 [End Page 89] Hamlet. Each omertà—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...