Arts & Events

New: Theater Reviews: Two Excellent Small Company Productions of Shakespeare--'Midsummer Night's Dream' Free! at Hinkel Park and 'Hamlet at the Phoenix Theatre

Ken Bullockl
Saturday July 29, 2017 - 12:48:00 PM

Summer's Shakespeare time, hereabouts, and excellent productions of two of his best-known plays have just opened--his fantastic comedy 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' staged for free at the old Civil Works administration (CWA) amphitheater in John Hinkel Park, and the most iconic Shakespearean tragedy of all, 'Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,' at the intimate Phoenix Theatre in the Native Sons Building near Union Square in San Francisco. 

--''If we shadows have offended ... " Puck's epilogue to and apology for the bawdy comedy of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' which mocks social conventions stifling young love, love itself--and finally theater--is maybe the archetypal apology of artists standing in front of their peers to show them what they're like ... 

What's often passed off as a light, old-fashioned comic fantasia for summer diversion--and it has that aspect--is also a cunningly sophisticated thing, operating on three overlapping layers at once--the young lovers of the ancient city of Athens (and their king, Theseus, who's just taken Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, captive, intending to marry her) who take to the woods to escape, or pursue, and end up enchanted and romantically confused; the Rude Mechanicals, craftsmen who moonlight as thespians, rehearsing to put on an entertainment for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding, until their bombastic lead, Bottom the Weaver, is transfigured with an ass' head; and the band of fairies in the woods, whose own performance consists of trickery, of mortals and each other, Oberon their king commisioning his waggish jester Puck to importune his feuding fairy queen, Titania, which ends when Titania falls in love with ass-headed Bottom. 

And that's the success of Inferno Theatre, with a big (20 person), young cast, most new to Inferno, consolidating into an active. flexible ensemble with the direction of Inferno's founder, Giulio Perrone, whose expertise in both Grotowskian style contemporary theater and the venerable Commedia Dell'Arte comedy of the Renaissance (with roots going back to antiquity, the comic mimes who performed when these romances originally entertained around the Mediterranean) informs every scene, tableau and vignette. 

Inferno's production nimbly juggles the three stories, which slide seemlessly and coyly together and apart, graced with physical comedy, song, dance and acrobatics, often seen multiply at once. To quickly single out three of the performers, Sharon Shao as Helena, the spurned admirer of Demetrius, who pursues Lysander's love Hermia instead, proves a lithe practitioner of physical comedy, cast against type in a way as Helena, but interpreting the part perfectly, with charm, exceptional focus and clarity--and plenty of juice ... enchanting and enchanted Indigo Jackson as Titania, the Fairy Queen, also fine as a gestural actor (she's the choreographer as well), her ethereal character heightened, not diminished by the bawdy love affair with Bottom as the ass ... and Jack Nicolaus, who played a clown in last summer's splendid production of 'The Tempest' by Inferno at Hinkel, again the genial, if overbearing comedian, too willing to take on any and all roles, till he's cast in one by the fairies he never auditioned for. His transformation, realized as he gallops roaring, ass-headed, across the outdoor stage with Puck astride him as the rehearsing Mechanicals scatter, is a great tour-de-force of magical slapstick. 

At the play's conclusion, the opening day audience, many of them picnicking families of all ages, roared out an ovation. Each of Inferno's three annual Shakespeare plays at Hinkel has been intriguing--and the last two have topped what came before. It's a delightful way to spend a summer afternoon in the amphitheater's hollw under the branches of the park.  

Saturdays and Sundays at 4 through August 13 at John Hinkel Park, 41 Somerset (take Southampton off northbound Arlington onto Somerset), not far from Indian Rock. For questions & to reserve spots on the amphitheater teraaces, especially for people of limited mobility, or call 229-8137. Lawn chairs, cushions, blankets, layered clothing advised. 

--"What a piece of work is man! ... And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" Distracted, the seemingly mad Prince of Denmark (Lijesh Krishnan as Hamlet, by turns boyish and imposing) extolls the virtues of humanity and parades his own disgust in a soliloquy witnessed by his bemused and alarmed schoolmates, Rosenkrantz and Guidenstern (a marvellously syncophantic comic duo, Alan Quismorio and Myles Wynn), who Hamlet skewers satirically as agents of his uncle the king, in the Ninjaz of Drama's lucid production of this most elusive of great plays at the Phoenix Theatre near Union Square in San Francisco. 

Ninjaz founder Rey Carolino has directed a committed ensemble of 13 to realize a rendering of 'Hamlet' rare in its fluid movement, scene to scene, and its clarity of both parts and the whole. Like last year's production of 'Lear,' which Carolino also directed, this 'Hamlet,' trickier in so many ways to do, is constantly illuminated by lines and scenes that suddenly stand out as if the spectator (well. this spectator) had never heard or seen them before. The court scenes in particular are arresting in their atmosphere. And the Player King's speech (spoken excellently by Greg Gutting, also a fine Osric), requested by Hamlet and alternately panned and admired by the unctious Polonius (a fine Geoffrey Colton, last year's Lear--and a fine sarcastci Gravedigger in this show), is wonderfully mimed by the other players (Jackie Haslam, Tim Foley, Tracey Baxter), whose 'Murder of Gonzago,'the "mousetrap" play-within-a-play "to catch a king!" (an alternately smooth and discomfitted Claudius, well-presented by Federico Edwards) is another high point, as are the appearances of Hamlet's father's ghost (played with gravity by Edwards) on battlements and in bedchamber when Hamlet corners his mother the queen (a splendid Kathryn Wood). 

David Abad has expertly cut the script, as he did with 'Lear' before. I couldn't always agree with Carolino and Abad's presentation of Ophelia and Hamlet, displacing their encounter from immediately after his most famous soliloquy, contemplating death, maybe suicide, then greeting his erstwhile love: "Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered," which as philosopher Gaston Bachelard commented, immediately identifies Ophelia as a kind of scapegoat for suicide or sacrifice--and "nymph" suggesting the water where she drowns, truly mad as Hamlet toyed with madness. Her lines, in many cases, must be spoken in a kind of ironic style, which I think blunts the integral meaning, paired so closely with Hamlet's. 

But this is at most a quibble. This production, which has plenty of contemporary touches, abandons the usual, rather passive anachronistic "interpretation" of Shakespeare, which has become such a cliché--kitsch, even, a one-to-one transference of time and place, "signifying nothing"--and attempts an original interpretation, which works in light of its genuine contemporary sense, and with an excellent performance by Emily Ludlow. 

Arcady Darter (who handled the choreography) as Laertes and Krista White (fight coordinator) as Horatio are cast croos-gender successfully, a contemporary practice with good results here. Maria Graham's costuming is imaginative.  

There are few enough productions of 'Hamlet' that grasp asense of the whole play. It's a poetic chimera, pressed into service over the centuries to reflect afull spectrum of ideas--and this one deserves its place with the truly cognizant renderings. I hope you see it. 

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 through August 5, with a 3 pm matinee Sunday July 30, at Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason, suite 601, just off Geary, a block from Union Square. $20-$25 (discount tickets through Goldstar, all ticket lnks at