There comes a point in Naomi Iizuka's adaptation Hamlet: Blood in the Brain when the Hamlet character, H, is out at a club, watching as his friends pass the mic and freestyle lighthearted rhymes about their lives. At this point, H is well steeped in his descent into madness; no longer able to even feign the lightest of conversations with the former allies he now believes to be plotting his death. The scene is a welcome break in tension -- full of energy, dancing, and characters we've watched struggle with big issues of loyalty and ambition just cutting loose. Then H grabs the mic, and all hell breaks loose.
The play, written by Ms. Iizuka and directed by Jonathan Moscone, is the result of daring new collaborations in both concept and creation. Blood in the Brain relocates Hamlet to 1980's Oakland -Â— in the thick of a culture of violence, drug dealing, and bloody power grabs. Hip hop culture provides additional context for the production, as characters beatbox, dance, and deliver lines against the backdrop of looped beats. Local theater companies, Intersection for the Arts, its resident group Campo Santo, and California Shakespeare Theater worked together on the project, with public forums, writing workshops, and input from students at the University of California at Santa Barbara's Summer Theatre Lab helping to push the language of the adaptation towards a believable vernacular.
Yet despite all the theory, a play is only as good as the actors who perform the vision, and I can't imagine Blood in the Brain carried by a better cast. Sean San José is intense and committed as H, opening up the character's claustrophobic monomania with earnestness and a ton of heart. Ryan Peters captivates as O (Ophelia), Ricky Marshall somehow manages to make The Ghost of H's Father both likable and menacing, and Tommy Shepard is sweetly sincere through L's (Laertes) tough dilemmas. Margo Hall commands scenes as the beguiling G (Gertrude), writhing through the drama in a slinky dress, heels, and smoke-trailing cigarette, at turns comforting her tortured son and driving her lusty husband in a desperate attempt to find and protect the status quo. Hall wraps her considerable talents like a shroud around the fragile G, always keeping her true motivations concealed in a flashy dancing, joke cracking or church-going exterior.
With a total of only six actors, channeling Hamlet's iconic characters relies on nuance (and costume changes) and the parsing of Elsinore down to only a few key players. Gone are Polonius, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, along with all minor characters beyond a chorus. Each actor rotated through an array of talents -Â— acting, singing, rapping and dancing at various times throughout the production, though this chameleon act never dissolves the mood built up around each part.
In the end, the effect of a smaller cast both exaggerates and diminishes the tragedy of Hamlet. In such sharp dramatic focus, each character becomes an almost larger-than-life instigator of the impending doom. While this does help us empathize with H's otherwise polarizing desire to, you know, kill people, it lessens the chaotic haze of something rotten in Denmark by creating uncomplicated villains. For instance, the Claudius character, C, played flawlessly by Donald E. Lacy Jr., seemed almost distractingly creepyÂ—cocky and unapologetically ruthless even down to his slimy physical movements. It was almost too easy to hate this bright orange tracksuit-wearing, gold chain-dripping interloper, leaving H's urge to seek revenge less of a hideous burden than some rather unpleasant business we unapologetically wait to unfold.
Although playwright Naomi Iizuka has said she doesn't see Blood in the Brain as a traditional adaptation so much as a "conversation" with the text, comparison is inevitable. Despite all its earnest innovation, the current production ended up feeling somewhat one-note, although it was a dazzling note, to be sure. The Shakespearean hallmark of pithy and elegant language is replaced by a more unfocused, nearly stream of consciousness style. Iizuka's characters suss out their situations in a kind of scattershot rush of fragments and isolated imagery and serial questions -Â— a style reminiscent of slam poetry. Not surprisingly, more turns out to be less with the language, and clear, memorable lines are sacrificed for chaotic impressions of action.
Spoiler alert for anyone who slept though Freshman English, but Shakespeare's final bloodbath does make it through to Blood in the Brain. While this ending maintains the original's sense of waste and pervasive doom, what was lost was the subtlety of the tragedy -- the gripping sense that Hamlet is a victim of not just his chaotic environment, but his personal fate. Chalking all the violence up to the culture of Oakland and drugs is interesting as a social comment, but the tragedy flowing from inherent flaws in humanity is more intriguing dramatically, at least from my flawed, human perspective.
But the beauty of an adaptation is that acknowledgement of the source material is only one way to approach a piece. Anyone not interested in the Shakespeare can see Blood in the Brain as its own tale of how the culture of violence and drugs in 1980's Oakland tore one family apart and appreciate all the play has to say about the city and its cultural legacy. After using his freestyle to accuse and alienate all of his friends and family, H finds himself outside a club with G, sitting in her car listening to the radio as she smokes a cigarette. She waxes poetic about the good old days -Â— the clothes, the 45's -Â— and H patiently listens. Both characters share a moment where they seem to acknowledge that something has gone terribly, irrevocably awry in their lives, but that this moment, listening to music and talking together, is the reason that they'll keep trying to make it right.
Hamlet: blood in the Brain runs through December 3 at The Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. Get Tickets and information