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Free Shakespeare in the Park: Hamlet’s Unmistakable Passion

September 12, 2017

San Francisco Free Shakespeare in the Park. You can’t go wrong with it. Every season a fresh production to make you glad you live in this generous city with a deep focus on the arts.

This year: Hamlet. A play I’d been familiar with (who isn’t?—it’s full of familiar quotes) since reading it first in college, but until last Sunday never seen. The words ring that much more clearly coming from the mouths of so many fine actors, Stephen Muterspaugh’s well-conceived production.

A true tragedy—one borne of the treacherous act of one man (Claudius, played by Jesse Caldwell) whose plot to slay his brother the king and marry his wife (Queen Gertrude, by Mary Ann Rodgers) has far-reaching, unanticipated consequences. The most brutal of these falls on Gertrude’s son, Hamlet (played with unmistakable passion by Nathaniel Andalis) whose descent–sometimes feigned, sometimes not–in to madness we share from the opening scenes.

Many of the scenes are truly moving. The play and the production revolve around the admirably configured Hamlet, the tormented, unable to consummate his revenge on his uncle, conflicted about how his own treacherous mother, wrapped in shrouds of indecision. No one is to be trusted, only the gallant Horatio. All others are fodder for plots arising from the secret corners of the many players’ minds.

The stage is of Elsinore’s castle, but one trick of SF Shakes’s outdoor productions is a long proscenium extending well out, to bring the actors right out into the audience.

Machinations and betrayals abound, culminating as in the best of the Bard’s tragedies, in a final scene the stage is littered with corpses. Only the king’s and queen’s truly deserving of this bitter end; the others, as always, accidents and mistakes. The fight scenes and the swordplay between Hamlet and Laertes (Sydney Schwindt) that brings them all down are extremely well choreographed, to the point that it certainly looked as though some real damage was done to the actors, until there remains only Horatio (Marissa Wanlass), tragically bereft of all that had been dear to her.

Free access, yes, and gratefully accepted. But productions this polished and mobile have a cost, so be prepared to bring some cash to fill the hats passed at the end of the show. As we are reminded, think of the cost of a movie, and think again to the cost of some other theatre you may have attended—say Hamilton—and bring what you can to keep these free productions coming, up and down the peninsula.

There are those who would withhold their accolades because a performance does not measure up to a preconceived and personal standard. This reviewer comes in fresh, sees what he sees, and comments thereon. And what I witnessed in the Presidio on September 10 truly merits your attention, as it does my enthusiastic commendation.

Through October 1, at the Presidio and then at McLaren Park

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