The undead rise again in the California Shakespeare Theater's eerie take on "Hamlet."
In Liesl Tommy's paranormal production of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy, ghosts are not elegant apparitions. They are the stuff of nightmares. Hamlet's slain father appears as a blood-spattered corpse that elicits shudders. Encrusted with viscera, twitching like a zombie, eyes glazed over, the dead king claws his way back from the grave to curse his son Hamlet with a lust for revenge.
Tommy's striking if flawed conception of the play, which unfolds at the bottom of an empty pool in an abandoned building, has an edgy, post-modern vibe. From its embrace of the grisly to its playful mix of R&B and rock music, this "Hamlet" reinvents the masterpiece for a new generation. And while this version of the tragedy lacks passion and urgency, it's still a potent examination of the play's timelessness. Here Shakespeare famously crystallizes the quandary of existence into ageless soliloquies that parse everything from the madness of grief to the fragility of love.
Clint Ramos' haunting set design conjures up a derelict Elsinore strewn with empty bird cages, a plastic kiddie pool, deflated balloons and a hobby horse. The castle is in ruins and the viewer is never entirely certain if the action unfolding before us is the remnant of a half-remembered dream. Perhaps all of the characters here are long dead, their secrets buried in the clutter they left behind.
In any case, there's no denying that Tommy is an inventive director ("Ruined" at Berkeley Rep, "Party People" in Ashland) who attacks the play with sharp ideas and intriguing tableaus. But this staging is far more intellectually provocative than it is moving for most of its 3 hours and 15 minutes.
The key to the play's power lies in the universality of Hamlet's demons, the way in which the drama mirrors everyone's struggles to make peace with a brutal world. Here that aching sense of relevance is muted, which makes this "Hamlet" less unsettling that it ought to be.
Clad in natty suits, LeRoy McClain exudes bravery, intelligence and forthrightness as the melancholy Dane, but he misses the anguish that should riddle Hamlet's psyche. He never truly seems tormented by doubt or plagued by regret, which undercuts the central tension of the play as Hamlet flirts with vengeance even as he marvels at the human condition.
Hamlet's brooding should be as beautiful as it is foreboding as he ponders his own dark fate: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god."
The prince of Denmark can't bring himself to choose between his love for the fair Ophelia (Zainab Jah), his loyalty to his slain father and his thirst for revenge. Notably, Adrian Roberts plays both the ghost and Claudius, who killed Hamlet's father and married his mother (Julie Eccles) to usurp the crown. The formidable actor grounds the production with his thundering presence.
The staging is shot through with such flashes of insight, but the pace often drags, and the tragedy never cuts close enough to the bone. There's more intensity in Danny Scheie's small but forceful turn as the player king than in the downfall of the royal family.
Jah (who starred in "Ruined" at Berkeley Rep) also rivets as Ophelia, particularly once her mind is broken, twirling about the stage in a scarlet straitjacket, riffing on a Flaming Lips song. The actress imbues the role with great delicacy, although she doesn't always project her voice effectively enough for outdoor theater.
There are many other lovely performances here. The redoubtable Dan Hiatt has a field day as the prattling Polonius, and Eccles radiates vulnerability in a convincingly needy take on Gertrude. The infamous kiss between mother and son is staged with potent ambiguity.
From start to finish, Tommy forces the theatergoer to rethink our assumptions about the play; that's a deeply stimulating experience, even if this "Hamlet" lacks the shattering power this seminal work deserves.
By William Shakespeare
Through: Oct. 21
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $35-$71, 415-548-9666, www.calshakes.org