If I describe to you the premise of Berkeley-based Shotgun Players' new season-opening production of Hamlet, you're likely going to write it off as some sort of stunt, and the Shakespeare purists might even write it off completely. But bear with me a second. This scrappy theater company is celebrating its 25th anniversary by launching an especially ambitious season of plays that will all be done in repertory, and they're starting with a doubly ambitious way of tackling an already difficult play: Seven actors begin each night's performance not knowing which role they'll play, and an audience member then draws that night's cast out of Yorick's skull, from multiple possible combinations. This of course requires all the cast members to learn the entire play backwards and forwards, and to be as fleet-footed and game, every night, as they possibly can be, with only five minutes between finding out who they're playing and the show beginning.

While on one level, yes, it's a stunt being performed by some well trained actors, for the delight of theater nerds, it's also an exciting and evocative way to experience a play that most theater-goers are already more than familiar with, not to mention an intriguing look inside the play itself. Rather than playing individual characters, as company member Kevin Clarke puts it, "We're all doing the play." And in taking it apart and putting it back together this way, seeing it differently each night through the nuances of each casting combination, this production becomes a master class in both flexibility, and in the lyrical malleability of Shakespeare's words. No matter how many times you hear the "What a piece of work is man" soliloquy, it's going to mean something a little different coming from a female performer than from a man, or from an older actor versus a younger one — and as director Mark Jackson says, "Hamlet is a character that everyone connects to. Everybody."

In the performance I saw last night, there was a mostly gender-normative breakdown in the casting, with women playing the two female roles (Ophelia and Gertrude), and men in the roles of Hamlet and Claudius. But with three women in the cast of seven and only two female roles, as well as double-casting of some roles, there will always be someone playing another gender — last night, an African-American woman, Cathleen Riddley, played Laertes, and every night, the same actor must play both Ophelia and Horatio, in this case it was a younger white woman, Megan Trout.

Also double-cast are the roles of the Ghost and the Gravedigger (I saw Beth Wilmurt in the roles), Polonius and Osric (Nick Medina, last night), and Gertrude and Claudius do double-duty as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This is a pared down, two-hour cut of the play in which a number of the less crucial scenes disappear, and Hamlet and Ophelia end up as the Player King and Queen in the brief play-within-the-play.

Clarke got his third shot at Hamlet last night, and it came off as a studied, fully realized, and energetic performance with considered nuance given to some of the most famous lines — and, after all, "the play's the thing" takes on all new meaning in a meta production like this. (Clarke said afterward that cast members typically prepare each day as if they might play Hamlet that night, but yesterday, he says, "I said fuck it, I'm listening to Prince on BART and being sad. So of course, when I pulled Hammie, I was like, oh lord...")

The entire cast is strong, and has to be with this undertaking, and each had standout moments in last night's performance — I was also hugely impressed with the sword fight scene, which is done with sound effects and choreography but without swords, given the fact that every actor has to learn to be on both sides of it and have each move down.

One element that keeps the audience well aware of the structure of this experiment is that each role, be it Gertrude/Guildenstern or Horatio/Ophelia, comes with a well labeled book that serves as each performer's constant prop — the Gravedigger even lets it double as a shovel. In each book, with easily thumbed open tabs, is that performer's script for the night — and while no one actually had to find any lines in theirs during last night's performance, the actors reportedly spend much of their time backstage refreshing their memories about what comes next. The books in hand partly serve to pull the audience out of the story and remind us of the experiment, but they also help us remember who's who, and they become part of everyone's costume. While on the one hand, the cast doesn't even appear to need the on-stage crutches anymore, after a few weeks of previews, it's not as if we're otherwise supposed to be fooled that anyone actually is Danish royalty here. The labeled scripts almost call to mind schoolbooks, and the cast can be seen as students — albeit very skilled ones — studying and repeatedly re-enacting Shakespeare's text.

And students they are. Some of these stalwart performers are simultaneously in rehearsals for Shotgun's next production, premiering next month, The Village Bike, and will then be doing both shows in repertory, after which a third show will get added to the mix in July, and so on, which means this roulette version of Hamlet will be ongoing in their lives, with them returning to the text periodically at least through next January — and if that's not Shakespeare School, I don't know what is.

Hamlet will play in this initial run through May 15, and then in repertory throughout the rest of the season. Check the calendar at Shotgun Players' website. Three-ticket tickets are also available, to allow you to see three different casting combos doing the play.