To see or not to see?

Sans set, sans lights, and sans roof, the San Pedro Playhouse’s Hamlet is also sans adequate sound design. And that crucial omission sinks what would otherwise be an adequate, if breakneck, version of Willie’s classic tale of murder, mayhem, and meta-theater, now on display by the natural spring in San Pedro Park. Pared down by Charles Jeffries to a YouTube-friendly one hour, this Hamlet sacrifices nuance to the demands of outdoor drama, but at too great a cost to the text  — when you can hear it at all. On opening night, the sound (designed by Ricki Kushner) sputtered and whirred, dipped and squawked, until all that was left was a company of actors bravely fighting to lob words, words, words over the buzz, buzz, buzz. That’s a shame: The company had all the Will in the world, but was sabotaged by the vagaries of technology. Until the problem is solved, however, it’s a difficult production to recommend.

Except for a spooky death-mask opening tableau, this is a resolutely traditional Hamlet, full of stand-and-declaim acting, and featuring striking Elizabethan costume design by Gregory Hinojosa. Hinojosa also doubles as director, and here the problems begin: The space by the spring — a vast natural “stage” of rocky ledges, supplemented by two wooden staircases — is awkward at best, and Hinojosa struggles to fill the expanse. The actors seem dwarfed by their surroundings, and thus distant both spatially and emotionally. It’s telling that by far the most successful scenes are those situated on the near side of the spring — “off-stage,” so to speak. The terrific fight scene that ends the play — within a rapier’s thrust of the audience — works partly because you don’t need binoculars to enjoy it.

I swear I’m not a Shakespeare purist, but it’s disconcerting to have Hamlet’s first words changed from the famously biting “More than Kin and Less than Kind” to a different, later soliloquy, and the sheer amount of slicing and dicing makes for a confusing evening and some woefully under-motivated characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not only dead but chillingly aren’t in the play (take that, Tom Stoppard!); Polonius’s crucial interrogation scene with Hamlet likewise falls victim to control-x. Still, enough of the play remains for certain scenes to pack a proper punch, including the play-within-the-play that catches the conscience of the usurping king, Claudius (given a suitably rascally characterization by Damian Gillen).

There’s little that’s pensive or brooding about Brendan Spieth’s titular hero — but any prince that can kick a guy in the nuts twice is my kind of Melancholy Dane. The fresh-faced Spieth brings an intensity and commitment to the role that bodes well for this Juilliard-training actor; sure, his mic might be generating enough feedback to attract whales, but dammit! he’s going to carry the show anyhow.

Ashley Treviño’s Ophelia is an attractive presence, though sparks never fly between her and Spieth; her suicide-by-drowning is mimed as a dumb show, even as we were all hoping for a swan dive into the tempting nearby spring. (After all, aren’t actors supposed to break legs?)

Pete Sanchez’s Polonius is appropriately bumbling but could be more pompous; Emily Spicer nails the role of the randy, ethically challenged Gertrude. Other supporting characterizations range from the fine to amateurish.

I do think Shakespeare in the Park, offered gratis to the community, is a grand idea, and I applaud the initiative of everybody involved: This is a labor of love not entirely lost. But the current incarnation is problematic; the poetry is swallowed by the sound design, and the visuals by the landscape. Cutting Hamlet down to an hour isn’t really doing the play any favors, and one wonders why the producers don’t opt for a classic that’s closer to an hour in the first place (a Roman comedy would be dandy; or a bubbly French farce). Lounging by the spring is lovely and all, but one pines for a real stage and (is it too much to hope for?) some elementary lighting, particularly as the midsummer nights grow longer. Lastly, the sweet-blooded in the audience should be sure to bring insect repellent (for the mosquitoes, the unkindest Cutter of all!).

Shakespeare in the Park: Hamlet
7pm weekends
Through Aug 12
San Pedro Springs Park
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