Hamlet, directed by Sheri Lee Miller, with original soundscape by Nancy Hayashibara, Spreckels Theatre Company, at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Rohnert Park, California
Reviewed by John Langdon
The California wine country is not London, Chicago, or New York, and there aren’t always as many options for Shakespearean playgoers. To be sure, dedicated companies are not so far afield, and inevitable seasonal productions tend to sprout in the spring and take place over the summer months, but for those who live in the northern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area year around, opportunities to see live Shakespeare close to home can be infrequent, especially in the winter months. That said, there are occasional productions, and some of them easily rival their big city competition. The current production of Hamlet at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center is case in point, offering a terrific production of the famous revenge tragedy framed as a dark pearl of a tone poem.
One local newspaper had said that this was Spreckels Theatre Company’s first production of any Shakespearean play, but no one would know that. The direction, peformances, and production values, were uniformly strong. Directed by the company Artistic Director, Sheri Lee Miller, and underscored throughout by Nancy Hayashibara’s moody original soundscape, this production of Hamlet leads us into an oppressively brooding Denmark, while commenting obliquely on the fluid and ephemeral nature of human existence. The imposing, fog wreathed, stone pillars of Eddy Hansen and Elizabeth Bazzano’s set reinforce the ominous mood, along with the backdrop screen that features a subtly changing parade of abstract patterns.
The players work their magic in this vaguely menacing world. Keith Baker’s accomplished Hamlet moves gradually from aggrieved distress to grim resolve, and his periodic witty jibes frequently wink at his committed friend, Horatio (Chad Yarish). This remains especially fitting as they are so often the only two characters in the play who remain aware of much outside themselves. Eric Thompson’s clueless Polonius is full of insufferable puffery. Danielle Cain’s Gertrude tries to maintain a mother’s hold on a world that quickly spins off its axis. Peter Downey’s Claudius clutches his ill-gotten crown and queen tightly, vacillating between moments of barely suppressed rage and self-doubt.
Chris Ginesi starts the play as a patient and almost jovial Laertes, only to become a vengefully determined juggernaut by the final sword bout. Ivy Rose Miller’s Ophelia, bullied by her father, her brother, and Hamlet, eventually loses her mind quietly, pointedly giving away flowers with a troubled expression, with her hauntingly lovely voice singing fragments of old songs. David Gonzalez manages to portray both ghost and father in a single character, less terrifying than tortured. The rest of the cast, all of whom play several roles support the action admirably. James Pelican’s Gravedigger is a sardonic delight. The spying Guildenstern (John Browning) and Rosenkranz (Zane Walters), and the obsequious Osric (Anderson Templeton) all have brilliant moments of their own. Ron Lam, Brandon Wilson, and Travis Jenkins also shine at numerous individual points, and the whole cast skillfully makes every line clear and accessible, even to those who may not be so familiar with Shakespeare’s early modern English.
Sheri Lee Miller’s direction gently leads the audience through the slow dissolution taking place onstage. Several of Hamlet’s asides and soliloquys take on a pronounced metatheatrical spin, with house lights coming up slightly at key moments to subtly include the audience in the world of the play. Baker tends to deliver these lines with a kind of vehemence that makes the audience almost feel as though they are included in Hamlet’s sweeping indictments. The musical soundscape created by Nancy Hayashibara is also enormously effective, supporting the play’s tone, and transitioning effortlessly scene to scene, while remaining neutral enough to avoid dictating what the audience should feel at any given moment. Similarly, the changing backdrop pattern softly underscores Denmark’s fragmenting court without being obtrusive or distracting. After his initial appearances, the reappearance of the ghost as a huge projection against Elsinore’s pillars suggests Hamlet’s increasing obsession with avenging his father’s murder.
This production of Hamlet beckons as a marvelous way to spend a weekend afternoon or evening. As a disclaimer, this theatre was familiar to me because I performed there myself years ago. It is gratifying to know that it remains a staple of the North Bay theatrical community, still filled with talent and lovely people, and still turning out first rate work. I highly recommend it.
 Templeton, David. “For These Petaluma Actors, Small Roles Are Big Fun.” Petaluma Argus-Courier, January 24, 2019.