Cathleen Riddley as Horatio, El Beh as Hamlet in Shotgun Players' production of Hamlet at the Ashby Stage. Photo: Pak Han
Cathleen Riddley as Horatio (left) and El Beh as Hamlet in Shotgun Players’ production of Hamlet. Photo: Pak Han

Shotgun Players prides itself on being “the little theater company that does big plays,” so producing its own extraordinary version of Hamlet seems absolutely appropriate. To begin its 25th season, Artistic Director Patrick Dooley assembled seven talented and gutsy players, who five minutes before the start of each performance pick names from a hat (actually Yorick’s skull) to determine which role each will play that evening. Although they’ve all rehearsed each part, to perform a major one, or two or three smaller parts, with so little prep time is incredibly difficult. It’s hard to imagine that Shotgun could pull this off, but the result at the evening I attended, was extremely successful. It’s different than other productions of Hamlet I’ve seen, but in a good way.

Notable Shotgun regulars Kevin Clarke, Nick Medina, Megan Trout and Beth Wilmurt, and guest artists El Beh, Cathleen Riddley and David Sinaiko, have spent many months in workshops, rehearsals and dueling practice to ready themselves for the 13 roles they play. If you do the math, there are 5,040 possible combinations of actors and roles. Many fans have attended more than one production. One stalwart has seen nine versions of Shotgun’s Hamlet since it opened. I understand why seeing multiple performance is tempting. The dynamics of each evening are distinctive, because of the changes in cast.

The production is tightly directed by first-rate Mark Jackson (Antigonick, Aurora’s The Letters). Male actors play women’s parts and vice versa, which frees the drama from its preconceptions. Shotgun’s version of Hamlet, like most recent productions, has been cut and it also has been modified. Ophelia has been given additional lines that are normally spoken by other characters. The geopolitical aspects of the play have been eliminated without ill effects. So the play ends without Fortinbras taking over the rule of Denmark.

The technical aspects of the drama are innovative as well. The stage set (by Nina Ball), with a platform and red curtains that the actors open and close during the performance is simple, yet very effective. The actors each have a piece of costume or insignia (by Christine Crook) to identify them. So, Claudius has a red sash, Ophelia a long black top. But what also helps to keep the characters straight is the black folio with the name of their character(s) on the cover, which they carry throughout the play. I did get confused at one point when one of the books was not visible. The folios also serve as occasional props, such as the gravedigger’s shovel. The fight scenes are conducted with imaginary weapons, but with amazingly well-coordinated sound effects (by sound designer Matt Stines).

Congratulations to the seven intrepid performers who had the courage to undertake this challenge. They have succeeded beyond expectations. And now each has had the rare opportunity of playing the lead in Hamlet.

Hamlet is playing nightly at the Ashby Stage through May 15, and Friday nights in repertory through 2016. For information visit Shotgun Players online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...