Something may be rotten in Denmark but all is well in Pleasanton as San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's "Hamlet" opens its three-week run Sunday at Amador Valley Community Park. This is the 35th year for the annual Free Shakespeare in the Park productions.
"It will be a celebration of our 35th anniversary and also a celebration of our partnership with Pleasanton," said director Stephen Muterspaugh, who has acted and directed with the troupe for many years, including playing the king in last year's "The Winter's Tale."
"As an actor, Pleasanton audiences are so special for us as they are the first to see our show, which will then run for 12 weeks throughout the Bay Area," Muterspaugh said. "The audience is the last piece of our puzzle to add to the show."
Other performances are given in Cupertino, Redwood City and San Francisco.
"Every venue changes slightly so we go back into rehearsal for a day and reconfigure for that space. Every three weeks we kind of reinvent the show although the bulk of it is locked down," he said.
"Hamlet" tells the tragic story of the Prince of Denmark after his murdered father's ghost appears to ask revenge against his brother, Claudius, who has murdered him and married his wife, Gertrude. Nonetheless the tragedy is appropriate for a celebration, according to Muterspaugh.
"It does have some darker themes to it, but Hamlet is a surprisingly charming character, disarmingly so," he explained.
"'Hamlet' is considered the most modern of Shakespeare's plays, mostly because of the psychology of the character," he added. "For me, it was about accessibility and resonance."
The unedited text of "Hamlet" is four hours long, Muterspaugh said, and it was his job as director to cut it in half.
"I do the initial broad cut, then in rehearsal we have a conversation with the actors -- they get lines to come back in, and we lose others," Muterspaugh said. "That's the first decision you make when you sit down with a Shakespeare play -- it is rare to have them completely uncut."
"Hamlet" was especially tricky to shorten because it has so many famous lines:
"Something is rotten in Denmark."
"To be or not to be, that is the question."
"This above all: to thine own self be true."
"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
"Get thee to a nunnery." ("Nunnery" was Elizabethan slang for brothel.)
As they read through the play, the actors protested when favorite quotes were left out, Muterspaugh noted with a laugh.
"We are trying to keep in the biggies," he said.
The cast includes Nathaniel Andalis in the title role; Rolf Saxon as Claudius; Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Gertrude; Sharon Huff as Polonius; Julian Lopez-Morillas as The Ghost/Player King/First Gravedigger; Kieran Beccia as Ophelia; Sydney Schwindt as Laertes; Maryssa Wanlass as Horatio; Melissa Quine as Rosencrantz/Marcellus/Osric; and Radhika Rao as Guildenstern/Barnardo/Second Gravedigger.
William Shakespeare expected a lot of give and take between his actors and their audience, and the production will include this feature.
"The actors are going to be talking to the audience, trying to get you on their side," Muterspaugh said. "Hamlet has seven soliloquies where he talks straight to the audience, to bare his soul. The audience is the only one that gets the full scope of what he is dealing with.
"What's interesting is that because of the direct audience interaction, there is always a difference from night to night," he continued. "A dog might be barking one night. Several times last year I would ask a question to the audience and sometimes they would answer. Then you find yourself in a dialogue.
"It is an incredible discovery as an actor. Everything completely shifts. It unlocks the language in a whole different way -- you have to have the language so rooted in your body."
Although the characters will wear modern clothes, "Hamlet" has a play within the play in which actors will dress in accordance with productions in the 16th-17th centuries.
"Since we are celebrating our 35th season of Free Shakespeare in the Park, it would be foolish if we didn't have a ruffled collar in there and show our roots," Muterspaugh said. "The traveling troupe of players will be very familiar."
In this production, the company is also harkening back to its Bay Area origins from 35 years ago.
"Free Shakespeare started on a picnic table in Golden Gate Park," Muterspaugh said. "We will have the stage as we normally have, but we will also have a platform in the middle of the audience. Sometimes characters will show up on the platform -- a nod to the roots of where we began."
This also helps Hamlet interact directly with the audience, he said.
"Our philosophy is to have one foot in the world Shakespeare was writing for and one foot in today's world," Muterspaugh said. "We are always respectful of the source of the text but we also want to resonate with today's audience. We don't want it to be a museum piece. Want it to be living, breathing."
Enjoy the Bard
What: "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare
Who: San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's Free Shakespeare in the Park
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, July 2-16. Preview performance at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday.
Where: Amador Valley Community Park, Santa Rita Road and Black Avenue
Other: For more information, visit www.sfshakes.org.