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Theater groups are always fretting about how to make Shakespeare relevant. Fearing that plots peopled with long-dead Scottish thanes and Egyptian queens (not to mention iambic pentameters riddled with "thees," "thous," and "vouchsafes") might clash with modern sensibilities, community-minded companies have long tried to reimagine the playwright's work in ever more meaningful ways. Hamlet: Blood in the Brain, a collaboration between California Shakespeare Theater and Campo Santo, follows that tradition. Developed over more than three years through a series of writing workshops, public forums, and interviews with a broad range of Oaklanders, from church groups and high school students to prisoners and ex-Black Panthers, playwright Naomi Iizuka's adaptation of this tragedy from 1600 seeks to connect the windswept battlements of Medieval Elsinore with Oakland circa 1989.
How strange it is, then, to attend a performance of this thoroughly contemporary, painstakingly plugged-in play and find myself feeling more distanced from the action on stage than I've felt in a long time. It's not that I don't recognize or empathize with Iizuka and her collaborators' creative landscape. Set in a ghettoized "Oaktown" of drug kingpins, gang rivalries, and drive-by shootings, Blooddeals with an eternal theme, memorably explored before (Boyz N the Hood, West Side Story): the way in which violence permeates a community, spinning out of control and wreaking havoc on relationships, to the ultimate destruction of entire legacies.
Neither did my sense of disconnection with the play stem from the performances. As "H," a young man forced (like his Shakespearean counterpart) to confront the death of his father and the "o'er hasty" marriage of his mother ("G") to his usurping uncle ("C"), Sean San Jose throws himself against the bars of his existence like a caged lunatic. His face is a clenched fist. He spits out the hard consonants of Iizuka's prose as if each word were poison. Bile runs in this boy's veins, not blood. Contrastingly, as H's girlfriend "O," Ryan Peters is all warm, self-assured confidence. Peters' scenes with San Jose are points of light in an otherwise sepulchral setting. He revels in the shininess of her lips; she marvels at the impenetrability of his mind. They share laughs. They go for a drive. The rhythm of the ensemble is equally compelling: When the mood suddenly shifts which it frequently does, and without warning the cast of six changes gear at the speed of a dodged bullet. Watching a tender scene between H and G (Margo Hall) collapse into a fatal showdown with C (Donald E. Lacy Jr.) is to feel death falling on your head like the lid of a coffin.
My estrangement stems from my inability to forget that I'm watching an adaptation of Hamlet. Reinterpretations of Shakespeare generally fall into two categories. The first, and most traditional, type seeks relevance through modernizing transforming scenic elements such as the costumes and sets (Ian McKellen's 1995 film version of Richard III, for example, recasts the play against a 1930s backdrop) or playing with themes such as sexuality and race (as in the British company Cheek by Jowl's famous all-male production of As You Like It in the early 1990s) but keeps the basic plot and language. The second, and more radical, approach is to use the dramas as a jumping-off point for new works. The best of these deconstructionist efforts, like 1966's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, make us think about our times and give us a fresh way of looking at Shakespeare.
Written in a hip hop-influenced language of "hella crazy muthafuckas" and paraphrasing the source material's plot, characters, and themes, Hamlet: Blood in the Brain fits into the second category. Yet it doesn't go as far as it should. There's just enough of the original in the adaptation (from the title to copycat scenarios like the one set in a crematorium) to make Shakespeare's play stick out like bones from a shallow grave.
If you're familiar with Hamlet, you'll likely be distracted by a largely futile game of comparison. Take the language, for instance. The cadences of hip hop are muscular and lyrical; rap has the potential to arrest the soul like the best of Shakespeare's verse. But Brain's vernacular lacks poetic range. The same words and turns of phrase pop up over and over, and it seems that Iizuka wouldn't know a metaphor if it threatened her with an Uzi (which is particularly disappointing given her literate earlier works, like 36 Views and Polaroid Stories). Having read the play after seeing it, I found the stage directions "light shift. sound shift. time and space shift. lake merritt. daylight. a beautiful, sunny day" more haunting than the spoken lines.
At the same time, those who are unfamiliar with the original won't necessarily be awed by the dully familiar cliché of "niggas" posturing in orange velour leisure suits and white Adidas sneakers, sporting 9 mm Glocks. I'm not from Oakland, but I still feel this vision of that city is too one-dimensional, especially compared with Shotgun Players' recent East Bay project, Love Is a Dream House in Lorin. Braininhabits an uninspiring no man's land somewhere between Elsinore and Oakland. It neither reveals anything new or profound about its community nor reexamines its source in a thought-provoking way.
I'm left questioning the mission of Cal Shakes' "New Works/New Communities" program, of which Hamlet: Blood in the Brain is the inaugural project. The program seeks to make "concrete connections between the work of classical writers and marginalized communities that for many reasons do not see themselves reflected in those plays." Yet what exactly does this endeavor reflect? It's a pale likeness of Shakespeare, to say the least. And as an image of Oakland, it's as murky as the bay at night. Neither satisfies. Engaging with the local environment is a laudable aim for any arts group. But is it better both from an outreach and an artistic perspective to force a community's experiences to fit the mold of a Shakespeare play, or to create a new work out of the experiences of that community?
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