Ubuntu's 'Hamlet' Is Epic, Crazed, And So Full Of Life That You'll Cry

The Ubuntu Theater Project might be the most appropriate name for a theater company in the Bay Area. For this loose-leafed band of artists headed up by artistic director and co-founder Michael Socrates Moran, theater is not really about the producing of plays, or better put, it only starts there. Rather, theater is indeed a project, a series of possibilities that must be continually negotiated and re-thought, depending on the conditions of the moment.

It’s the type of mission you’d expect from the most well funded, state subsidized theaters of Europe and not an itinerant, theater-deprived, hop-from-space-to-space, produce-six-to-seven-plays-a-year Oakland-based collective. It’s a miracle that all this is happening right before us, and that you can wander down Broadway on a random Saturday night and catch Ubuntu’s Hamlet for under twenty dollars.

But you can and you should, because what you’ll see for the first two hours of this three-hour production is an incredibly clear, passionate, at times deranged, epic staging of Hamlet. Its anger seems ripped from the streets and placed right on stage, but not in a didactic or direct way. Sometimes clarity is oblique and attacks from behind.

In this strange play about a strange, young man thrust into the middle of family and political disasters, where fratricide is regicide, Ubuntu’s production suggests that the best, most intelligent, and sensitive parts of Hamlet, and by implication us, are a disaster in the making. So for a production brimming with passion, one in which the director and Hamlet are the same man—and seemingly on the same savage and unhinged quest for clarity—every scene is suffused with a cautionary sense of proportion, a chaos bridled by an exacting and precise geometry.

That spirit of interrogation brings the play to life in striking ways and we pay attention to moments and lines usually passed over, quickly forgotten, and often cut. When Hamlet meets his father’s ghost it’s a terrifying encounter with the dead, or, more accurately, a series of terrifying encounters. Moran’s staging is quick, economical, and shocking. And it makes us understand that this is a ghost story, a dead father’s violent possession of his living son. That’s hard to pull off, to unsettle a 21st century audience with a stage ghost.

The players, the actors Hamlet hires to reenact his father’s murder in front of his Uncle Claudius, usually barely register; but here the production is keen to who these actors are, the poor and destitute, and where they are performing, the royal palace. What Ubuntu understands is that Hamlet might command our attention, but he is not the only one who suffers and must rise to the occasion.

This is a world where everyone has to be nimble and alert, from the royals to the clowns. There are a number of terrific, individual performances—Moran as Hamlet, Sharon Shao as Ophelia, Dov Hassan as Polonius, J Jha as a haunted and caring Horatio—but the ensemble of bit players are at times equal to these fine, lead performances: Margherita Ventura’s dense clown, William Oliver, III, and Rolanda Bell’s smooth rapping Player King and Queen, even the guards and the silent nobles of the court register.

With the director playing a role that often overshadows the play, the ensemble allows us to feel how the damage inflicted upon Hamlet resonates throughout the rest of the state. That pain becomes personal and singular many times over, touching every member of the cast. And so everything in the first two hours is a thrill ride, as even the most comic scenes explode with unexpected tensions and displays of force.

Early on in the play, Ophelia is spending a few last moments with her brother Laertes before he goes off to France. He playfully warns her about fooling around with Hamlet and she playfully warns him about the women of Paris. When Polonius joins his children to offer his own advice in a series of platitudes (“neither a borrower nor a lender be”), things couldn’t be jollier.

It’s a beautiful scene, comic, antic, and full of familial love. And it’s beautifully played by Shao, Hassan, and Ogie Zulueta as Laertes. Yet, even this supposedly innocuous moment of fun keeps drifting into subtle, intimations of violence and sometimes out right threats. In this production, details like that are never lost and keep on weaving their way into catastrophes of greater and greater intensity.

In many ways, this Hamlet is a strict and traditional one, taking seriously all the play has to offer—its boundless energy, the way it repeatedly flirts with dramatic collapse and chaos, the biting humor, and the force of Hamlet’s mind and soul. And then that extra bit, the minds and souls of all the people of the world that surround him, too. That’s something an Ubuntu production would never overlook.

The production flags in the last hour, though there are still moments of striking insight and grace and it’s never less than fascinating. Ubuntu keeps on staking ground in a variety of material—the vicious melodrama of Hurt Village, the devastating, political violence of To the Bone, and this Hamlet, which burns with an intensity so ridiculous that parts of it will make you cry.

A Free Audience should want to see this. Tell me if you did and what you thought after it happened.

Hamlet runs through November 4 at the Flight Deck in Downtown Oakland. For tickets and information click here.