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Sometimes the crack of gunfire punctuated their soliloquies. Sometimes they had to rehearse in a parking lot.

But that didn't stop four young people from one of this city's tougher neighborhoods from participating in Midnight Shakespeare, a program that tries to take Hamlet to the 'hood."What this does is to break barriers," says Kim McMillon, of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, which ran the workshops. "Here, we go to their world."

The series ended successfully with a performance at a downtown theater in late July. But that came only after weeks in which it looked as though the summer program, modeled after the successful Midnight Basketball, was not to be.

Problems in getting a place to rehearse meant the players had to keep changing locations. Because they often had to rehearse on basketball courts, sessions were staged earlier in the evening to keep the light.

Then there were problems with which the Royal Shakespeare Company probably never has to deal.

"When we were rehearsing, you'd hear gunshots," McMillon said.

But logistical hitches were just one aspect. The bigger task was pitching Shakespeare as something more than a dead playwright consigned to the pages of an English textbook.

"The fact that it happens to be a 300-year-old white guy, yeah, that's a tough thing," said director Robin Peters.

But Peters, who sometimes had to play basketball with prospective recruits before he could get them to talk theater, persevered, presenting Shakespeare as a writer of universal themes - love, death and revenge.

"We would rap about it and kind of figure out what's going on," he said.

One such session came when the young actors tried to make sense of a scene they were working on from "Henry IV" in which Prince Henry confronts his portly pal, Falstaff, about running from a fight and then lying about it.

The lines are full of tongue-twisters such as "couldst" and "canst," and the play's subject of royal intrigue is a far cry from urban life.

But the actors didn't let extra consonants phase them, McMillon said.

"They broke it down to their own words - the homeboys caught him doing what he shouldn't be doing and they jumped him," she said.

For teen player Rene Molina, performing Shakespeare was a chance to stretch his mind a little - and make up for that time in the fifth grade when he fluffed his lines in the class play.

Still, it wasn't an instant conversion.

"In the beginning, I didn't think I could do it. I thought, `No I don't want to do this.' There were so many lines," he said.

But after a while, he started to see the sense behind the words.

One of the soliloquies he performed was a speech in which Hamlet berates himself for not doing more to avenge his father's murder.

"I could relate to him," Molina said. "If something like that happened to me, I'd get mad as well."

That message - that Shakespeare is relevant to all communities - was the idea behind the series, organizers said.

"There are all too few people of color in the classic performing arts," said Bobby Winston, president of the festival, which plans to run more workshops this fall. "We're seeking to do something ambitious . . . by way of recruiting more people of color into the program."