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Theatre in Review: Hamlet (The Public Theater)

Oscar Isaac, Roberta Colindrez. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Before it collapses in a heap of mannerisms and conflicting acting styles, Sam Gold's contemporary take on Hamlet manages some remarkable effects. This is a minimalist vision of the play, at times as intimate as a whisper. With the house lights still on, the cast enters David Zinn's nearly bare, burnt sienna set, and Keegan-Michael Key, who plays Horatio, welcomes us, offering the usual speech about cell phones, etc. Being a comic, he warms up the room, earning some easy, genial laughs and cheers. Then Oscar Isaac, as Hamlet, enters, dragging Ritchie Coster -- who, later, will be Claudius, but at this moment represents Hamlet's dead father. Isaac places Coster on a table strewn with flowers; the cast looks out at us and, during an unnervingly long pause, the mood shifts, definitively, to one of mourning. There are no overt lighting cues, no obvious sound effects, just a skilled company of actors grabbing our attention via a simple act of concentration.

Early on, Gold finds fresh ways to stage some very familiar scenes, always employing an economy of means. The sequences on the parapet at Elsinore are staged in darkness, the tense, hushed exchanges of the guards on watch interrupted by bursts of dim light on Coster -- still on the table -- who sits up, a corpse briefly called back to life. It's a simple gesture that effectively introduces the ghost of Hamlet's father, and it rightly earns a gasp from the audience. When Hamlet, disgusted at the general acceptance of Claudius' marriage to Gertrude, slips into his first monologue ("Oh, that this too too sullied flesh would melt...") Isaac merely steps downstage, the rest of the company frozen behind him; it's a telling image of Hamlet as the lone dissenter in a court that has, with unseemly haste, pivoted from the dead monarch to his replacement.

The director also finds ways of revivifying relationships that we may feel we know too well. Gayle Rankin's Ophelia is smart, rebellious, and clearly tired of living in an otherwise all-male household. Fed up with yet another brotherly lecture from Laertes, she takes cover under that table, assuming the fetal position, like any other flippant, know-it-all adolescent. Peter Friedman's Polonius is as fatuous as anyone could wish, but he also harbors a surprising vein of anger, a trait makes him hard to dismiss. Insisting that Ophelia stop spending time with Hamlet, he works himself into a near-frenzy, slamming his fist on the table for emphasis. Exiting, he gives his daughter a hard little tap on her shoulder that is both an expression of fatherly intimacy and a reminder that he means business.

And Isaac, who ten years ago was a very fine Romeo in Central Park, is frequently an inspired Hamlet, giving off little sparks of insolence at his mother and stepfather, convincingly impersonating an emotional basket case in his "mad" scenes and tearing into the monologues as if his life depended on it, carefully parsing the existential questions embedded in them. He brings such a raw, naked ferocity to the confrontation with Gertrude in her chamber that you begin to wonder if Polonius won't be the scene's only casualty. There's a similar urgency in his main face-off with Ophelia ("Get thee to a nunnery"), suggesting that he retains a very real passion for her that must be suppressed if he is to avenge his father's death. Here and elsewhere, the director and his cast handle the text with a lucid technique that transforms Elizabethan iambic pentameter into something very much like modern, conversational dialogue.

And yet, for all of the production's very real accomplishments, so much is lost. Its intently close-up focus and early twenty-first century attitude may provide a certain accessibility, but they also strip the play of its grandeur. This is Hamlet as a contemporary dysfunctional family drama; there is no sense that we are in an intrigue-riddled royal court in a nation on the edge of war. (Fortinbras has been removed altogether, eliminating the possibility of an external threat.) Indeed, the fate of Denmark no longer hangs in the balance; we may as well be in a suburban living room.

As in his recent Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, Gold's approach is subtractive, and, surprisingly, he has little to add; this Hamlet is filled with weird touches that, in sum, reveal a director with little to say. A bathroom, built into the upstage wall of the set, is used so often that one suspects that the cast drank too much water before curtain time; having Polonius, sitting on the john, give instructions to a courtier tells you nothing about his character, nor does making Hamlet, feigning madness, run around in his underwear, his neck wreathed in toilet paper. Similarly, a certain prop -- a king-size serving of lasagna -- appears so prominently it should have received featured billing: Ophelia stress-eats from it during a spat with her father, and, later, the baking sheet holding the dish is overturned so an enraged Hamlet can chop it up. The presentation of The Murder of Gonzago is normally a moment of high drama -- - it is, after all, the moment when Hamlet confirms Claudius' guilt -- - but here the scene is reduced to a hash by having the players carry on ineptly; it's The Play That Goes Wrong, The Denmark Company.

In some ways, the most egregious staging error occurs in Ophelia's mad scene, which is allowed to go on at such length that I began to wonder if Gold considered her to be the protagonist. The body of the recently murdered Polonius is lying at stage center, covered with dirt; Ophelia enters with a garden hose and soaks herself, then her father, before lying down next to him in the pile of what is now mud. (Given this treatment, I hope Peter Friedman gets a little something extra in his pay packet.) The sequence has a powerful moment or two -- - notably when Ophelia slaps a glass out of Claudius' hand -- - but it takes forever and it seems to exist largely for the director to make his imprint on the play.

Furthermore, Gold has seemingly allowed his actors to do what they will, resulting in a bizarre mélange of styles. More than once I found myself wondering what Charlayne Woodard's regal, high-style Gertude was doing with Coster's Claudius, a mumbling, scratching refugee from a Guy Ritchie gangland picture. (The confusion extends to Kaye Voyce's costumes: Woodard is dressed to attend the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Ball, while Coster is in jeans and T-shirt.) Roberta Colindrez and Matthew Saldívar's approach to the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be called Elizabethan mumblecore. Key's Horatio is offhand, casual; there's little sense of the skilled, and very worried, courtier who serves as Hamlet's confidante. Anatol Yusef doesn't make much of an impression as either Laertes or the Player King.

The production has its sensible elements, including Mark Barton's lighting and Bray Poor's sound; the musician Ernst Reijseger provides effective (sometimes spooky) underscoring with his cello (which he also uses as a percussion instrument) and shruti boxes, which are similar to a harmonium. But by the third act -- - Gold has opted to provide two intermissions -- - this Hamlet has squandered its early promise, ending up something of a bore. The awkwardly staged climactic duel between Hamlet and Laertes is filled with oddities: Why in a costume plot dominated by sloppy-looking leisure wear, do four cast members suddenly appear in full fencing regalia? Why is Gertrude still alive as the lights go down? What happens next without the onset of Norway's army? Does somebody call the cops?

Worst of all, Isaac's Hamlet fails to evolve over time; there's no sense that, having eavesdropped on the guilty Claudius, brutally confronted his mother, committed what amounts to manslaughter, and barely escaped being killed himself, he returns from England a sadder, world-wearier prince, ready to embrace death if the fates demand it. The lack of progression in the performance proves seriously undermining. A monumental tragedy has been reduced to a domestic dispute, albeit one with a high body count. For the first time seeing Hamlet, I didn't wonder what happens next; sadly, this was because this time I didn't care. -- David Barbour

(13 July 2017)

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