San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Hamlet’ production revamps literary classic

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The Bay Area isn’t New York, and it has nothing comparable to Broadway. Still, it hosts a broad range of performing arts all year round. From the premieres of new, brilliant productions to the lively, reimagined classics, the Bay Area passionately invents and reinvents.

This summer, the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival — now in its 35th year — has toured in many cities across the Bay Area, including Pleasanton, Cupertino and Redwood City, performing a production of “Hamlet” for free. On Sept. 2, the SF Shakes’ production of “Hamlet” arrived in San Francisco, where it will be performed at the Presidio through Sept. 17. After its run at the Presidio, it will run at McLaren Park from September 23 to October 1.

“Hamlet” stands as one of the masterpieces of the English language. Reading the play in a high school or college classroom, a student may scarcely grasp its eloquence and importance, but when put on the stage by the likes of SF Shakes, it can be a transformative experience. The theater company embraces Shakespeare in all his complexity, and it knows how to convey the dense yet universal content and philosophies present in his works.

“The goal is always to both honor the story Shakespeare wrote as well as tell it in a manner which helps to make it accessible and relevant to today’s audiences,” said “Hamlet” director, Stephen Muterspaugh, in an interview with The Daily Californian. “My job as director, in many ways, is to get out of the way of the text and let Shakespeare’s words do the work.”

In the production of “Hamlet,” those words are spoken by a diverse cast. One focus of this particular production is gender

“Shakespeare wrote two roles for women, but given our 50/50 aesthetic, audiences will see a lot of gender-swapped roles,” said Muterspaugh. This particular casting provides a thought-provoking examination on gender roles — both in late middle ages Denmark and in America today.

Kieran Beccia, a gender-queer actor who plays the role of Ophelia, is proud of the impact the play has on audiences today. “After one performance,” recalled Beccia, “a high school student approached me and professed how much it meant to them to see non-normative gender identities represented onstage in such an iconic play.”

In the play, Ophelia’s character faces numerous obstacles related to her gender, as a product of Shakespeare’s writing. Ophelia, as a result, struggles to find equilibrium between achieving what she wants and meeting the demands of the men in the story. Beccia’s performance as Ophelia aims to challenge the traditional portrayals of Ophelia’s character as well as the perception of gender in “Hamlet,” providing a new narrative unique to the production.

Modernization of a historic work is, however, not without risk, and the production has its critics. “Hamlet” is a play about a monarchy in 14th-century Denmark, set in the Kronborg castle (which still stands today). It’s possible — but challenging — to change some of these historical parameters and locate the play instead in the 20th century without much loss of meaning. SF Shakes is only partly successful in effecting this journey — at times, the play feels stuck, unable to move forward or progress within the plot.

Still, the narrative is available in the words spoken, and so, as with any Shakespearean work, audience members must attend closely to Shakespeare’s language in order to get the most out of the production. Even as Shakespeare’s work becomes more distant from us in time, it loses none of its significance to audiences.  

“The iconic quotes in ‘Hamlet,’ the characters, and perennial ponderings — all of this an audience today can relate to and appreciate. Shakespeare only gets better with age. The further we get from Shakespeare’s contemporary era, the more astounding it is,” said the actor portraying Hamlet, Nathaniel Andalis.

At a time when truth is largely manufactured by those in power, we are, like Hamlet, called upon to understand how our world works and to change it — for that reason, this play still disturbingly resonates.

Contact Maybelle Caro at [email protected].

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