“Hamlet” Breaks New Ground, Amazingly, at Ubuntu, Oakland
Michael Moran Acts, Directs a Rockin’ Shakespeare
by Barry David Horwitz
It takes a lot of cojones to act, direct, and produce Hamlet in a storefront in downtown Oakland, at The Flight Deck, across from the Paramount Theater. Only the Ubuntu Theater Project, with their diverse, multi-cultural, and rainbow identity would attempt such a rash act. And miracle of miracles, they knock it all the way to the Coliseum and into Infinity!
Opening Hamlet in total darkness, just as the sentries on the battlements experience it, marks Michael Socrates Moran’s genius staging from the start. We, too, are befuddled as the sentries, drawing us into mystery, right away. But that’s only one unique innovation in Director/Actor Moran’s Hamlet. We are treated to a long central runway that thrusts from back to front of the long room—with single seats along both sides. Most of us sit in bleachers at one end, looking up the length of the prodigious ramp or pier in front of us.
It’s a long wharf that ends in darkness and drapery, and all the action takes place on that runway, covered in heavy black cloth at the start. The black soon ripples and bobs and billows when supernatural effects are needed—and they work, perfectly.
Among other well-tune staging that helps to clarify mysterious parts of the play:
Hamlet’s is absorbed and transformed by his father’s Ghost in a black cloak.
A baptismal pool, river, or pond appears under heavy wooden trap-doors—for Ophelia, Hamlet, and Gertrude to to wallow in.
The energetic hip-hop troupe of Players strut, dance, and rap their way into Hamlet history.
And that’s only the top three things that come to my mind.
Ubuntu’s large, diverse, and committed ensemble remain true to their name: Ubuntu means We are One, and they mean all of us, too. Actors from the whole of Oakland, and the rest of us, feel part of this Hamlet that reaches into our minds and hearts.
Moran’s marvelous use of simple props—the flowing black drapery that embodies the Ghost—I cannot tell you how ingeniously Moran uses that prop—you must see it—and the powerful embodiment of the Ghost on a microphone–work better than any Ghost ever.
The simple silver mask that Hamlet uses for many occasions, including the skull of Yorick, shout volumes across the ages. Ophelia (delicate, powerful Sharon Shao) throws herself at Hamlet and they play sexy games—no shrinking violet she, to great effect. Gertrude (elegant Mia Tagano) makes a believable and distraught Queen and mother. Laertes (Ogie Zuleta) throws himself into fantastic feats of comedy and terror.
Polonius (Dov Hassan) pulls rank on his kids in many sweet and silly ways, while Horatio (J Jha) stays down to earth, wisely, making the best friend ever.
Claudius, the evil King, such a tricky role—only a fine Shakespearean actor like Rolf Saxon, with lots of experience, can pull it off. Saxon makes a thoughtful, persuasive, almost compassionate Claudius. Saxon’s Claudius makes a whole play in himself—Claudius, Plaything of Denmark. He and Old Hamlet’s Ghost do marvels on the long wooden runway. You can’t take your eyes off of Claudius.
The Ensemble as the Players make the best Player Troupe ever—a large group, hip-hop dancing, singing, marching right at us—a revelation of the Players, including impressive William Oliver III as Player King and Rolanda D. Bell at Player Queen.
The formidable Kenny Scott and Nathaniel Andalis make a Guildenstern/Rosencrantz duo that conjures more plays in our minds—they make those two neglected roles into strong, sensual statements that feed the Hamlet world.
Taking every posture and every graceful slide you can imagine on that naked bare wooden runway, we get to the heart of the matter: Michael Socrates Moran’s acting of Hamlet. Like all the players at his banquet, Moran invokes gymnastic, lyrical magic. All his words come “trippingly off the tongue,” as he instructs the Players. His command of stagecraft, variety, pacing, movement, and technique tell us he has trained for this moment all his life. Michael makes an historic Hamlet, that lays down a map. I want to go again to see his Hamlet as he warms it to moment, day by day. A wonder.
Ubuntu Theatre Project has done it again—created a miraculous play from simple materials—in the hands of all of us because we are all one in their People’s Hamlet. Better get down to Flight Deck on Broadway and 15th Street in Oakland. It will be sold out.
“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Socrates Moran, by Ubuntu Theater Project, at The Flight Deck, 1540 Broadway, Oakland 94612, through Sunday, November 4, 2018. Info: ubuntutheaterproject.com
Cast: Hamlet: Michael Socrates Moran, Claudius: Rolf Saxon, Gertrude: Mia Tagano, Polonius: Dov Hassan, Laertes: Ogie Zulueta, Horatio: J Jha, Ophelia: Sharon Shao.
Ensemble: Nathaniel Andalis, Rolanda D. Bell, Jean Carey, Kimberly Daniels, Carla Gallardo, Abdulrahim Harara, Indigo Jackson, Guillermo Labarca, Alicia McCauley, William Oliver III, Kevin Rebultan, Leigh Rondon-Davis, Kenny Scott, Matt Standley, Margherita Ventura, and Emilie Whelan.