Marin Shakespeare Company’s “Hamlet,” onstage at Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, feels like a momentous occasion for all sorts of reasons.
It’s been a long time, 2019, since Marin Shakes last produced its summer season at the amphitheater.
A lot has happened since then. After a two-year COVID hiatus, last year Marin Shakes announced a new artistic director, Raphael Massie (the first since artistic director emeritus Robert Currier and managing director Lesley Schisgall Currier founded the company in 1989), but soon Massie left and the planned 2022 season was canceled. Just this month, MSC finally completed its new indoor performing arts center in downtown San Rafael after six years in the works.
This new “Hamlet” is adapted and directed by Jon Tracy, MSC’s new artistic producer of the summer season. Tracy directed a bold take on “The Tempest” for the company in 2011, and then spent several years reimagining Berkeley company TheatreFIRST as its artistic facilitator.
The show has a wildly different look and feel than past productions, with a terrific cast and creative team mostly new to the Marin Shakes stage.
One of William Shakespeare’s most-quoted plays, “Hamlet” is the tragedy of the titular prince of Denmark, brooding on his father’s death and his mother marrying his uncle. Pretty sure that uncle/stepfather Claudius murdered Hamlet Sr., Claudius’ own brother, Hamlet spends most of the play feigning insanity and vacillating about killing his uncle and maybe himself.
A more traditional modern-dress “Hamlet” opened the 2018 season, with the Curriers’ son Nate in the lead, but Tracy’s adaptation is a startlingly different take on the classic.
Scenes and famous speeches are chopped up and rearranged or repeated in poignant ways. It’s trimmed down for a cast of eight performers, and several characters are cut or merged with others. Most strikingly of all, almost all the deaths happen differently than they usually do in this play.
The setting is contemporary, with handguns and smartphones and sleek modern costumes by Miyuki Bierlein and Luisa Frasconi, including some particularly elegant gowns for Bridgette Loriaux’s Queen Gertrude.
Nick Musleh is an animated Hamlet, manic in his zany hijinks and prone to break into tears or derailment of his train of thought.
Hyperventilating with anxiety, désirée freda is riveting as Ophelia, Hamlet’s frustrated and ill-fated love interest, who takes refuge in popping some kind of prescription pills and in donning the large headphones always hanging around her neck and dancing wildly to thumping electronic dance music.
Rinabeth Apostol is a forceful, swaggering Laertes, Ophelia’s protective sibling, whose swordfight with Hamlet is gripping as directed by Dave Maier. Longtime Marin Shakes performer Richard Pallaziol is comically garrulous and eager-to-please as Ophelia’s father, Polonius.
Michael Torres is a low-key, fretful and shifty King Claudius. Loriaux, the show’s choreographer (who’ll direct MSC’s “Twelfth Night” in August), is a poised and somber Gertrude who keeps her thoughts closely guarded.
Stevie DeMott exudes constant dread as Hamlet’s friend Horatio, and she and Apostol are amusingly playful and bewildered as college friends-turned-informants Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Lady Zen is marvelously compelling as the Clown King, transforming dramatic speeches into mesmerizing songs (music and sound design by Zen and Ben Euphrat), accompanied by Apostol as the Clown Queen with an eerie puppet play. Doubling as the wisecracking Gravedigger, Zen conveys volumes just by looking at somebody in a wearily indulgent way.
Not everything works. Torres as the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears as a stern and slowly pacing regular guy, there being still too much daylight for any of Tracy’s dramatic lighting to take effect. A long table at the center of Nina Ball’s elegantly simple set serves a variety of purposes, but it’s sometimes perplexing why the royals (including that ghost) spend so much time moving furniture around.
That’s part of a constant sense of motion that helps make this production dynamic and fast-paced even at two hours and 40 minutes long. It’s a “Hamlet” that feels fresh and occasionally shocking, tweaking Shakespeare just enough to make the audience really listen closely to his language in a whole new way.
Sam Hurwitt is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at twitter.com/shurwitt.
IF YOU GO
Where: Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, 890 Belle Ave., San Rafael
When: Through July 16; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 4 and 8 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $15 to $40
Information: 415-499-4488, marinshakespeare.org
Rating (out of five stars): ★★★★