With its emphasis on neurosis, youthful angst and the maybe-not-so-paranoid mistrust of authority, “Hamlet” is particularly adaptable to modern settings. It certainly works in the high-octane environment of crack-riddled, violent, late-1980s Oakland, where Naomi Iizuka has located her new “Blood in the Brain.” Co-written with several cast members over a long development process, directed by Jonathan Moscone of California Shakespeare Theater (which co-produces), this isn’t an adaptation of Shakespeare so much as a vivid, hip-hop-poetical street drama using several of his motifs. It’s a striking evening, if one that occasionally overdoses on in-ya-face testosterone.
Young H (Sean San Jose) is paroled from prison only to find his adoptive father has been killed and his biological mother G (Margo Hall) has taken up with Uncle C (Donald E. Lacy Jr.), a rival drug dealer who might well have ordered dad’s death. H’s anger at this “scandalous” state of affairs is heightened by sightings of his stepfather’s ghost (Ricky Marshall), which urges him toward blood vengeance.
Protag’s increasingly erratic behavior baffles would-be girlfriend O (Ryan Peters), prompts failed attempts at parental discipline by strong-willed mom and threatens Uncle to the point where he decides junior “needs to get popped” — dispatching H’s own erstwhile best bud, a most reluctant L (Tommy Shepherd), to do the deed.
Original play’s array of Danish court characters is astutely shrunk to a handful of figures, with some thesps briefly taking on miscellaneous “chorus” roles. The streetwise dialogue references classic soul-single lyrics at least as often as it does the Bard.
Basic story is so effectively absorbed into its new milieu that one barely registers a memorable rap-freestyling contest as Iizuka’s equivalent of the “players” scene, when Hamlet makes it bitterly clear to Claudius he’s on to the latter’s villainy.
A series of news-flash postscripts sound notes very far from Shakespeare but pitch-perfect here, with a fine, slow final chill that seals H’s fate. (However, text’s myriad local references will have to be modified if it’s to be restaged outside the Bay Area.)
The intensity level sometimes overpowers, with a few too many moments when ensemble runs yelling and signifying around the small playspace, impersonating a volatile crowd. Of course, that boisterous, edge-of-violence energy is appropriate for a time and place ruled by drugs, guns and desperation.
Yet many of the evening’s most potent scenes are quiet, tense dialogues, particularly those between San Jose’s coiled-spring H and the women in his life, Hall’s spectacularly sexy (even borderline incestuous), aggressive ma and Peters’ worried but far-from-unhinged Ophelia-manque. Entire cast is fine, but these emotionally conflicted ladies are sensational.
James Faerron’s stark set design of gunmetal-gray walls and tangled scaffolding provides an impressionist interpretation of urban life under siege, with a major assist from Russell Champa’s dramatic, often blood-red lighting schemes. Live beats (mixed stage-rear) often trigger rhymes cast members wrote themselves.