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Theatre in Review: Hamlet (New York Shakespeare Festival/Delacorte Theatre)

Daniel Pearce, Ato Blankson-Wood. Photo: Joan Marcus

The current Hamlet at the Delacorte features the spectacle of a designer destroying a set created for a previous production. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it.

In 2019, Beowulf Boritt designed a revival at the Delacorte of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenny Leon. Set among the progressive Black bourgeoisie of Atlanta, its scenery was especially sumptuous, featuring a brick-and-slate house exterior with a second-floor gallery, surrounded by a vast green lawn, complete with a stone patio and an array of peach trees. Attached to the house were two enormous signs, announcing "Stacey Abrams 2020." It was an ideal setting for Leon's appealingly contemporary take on William Shakespeare's comedy.

A lot has happened in the ensuing years, and it seems appropriate that this Hamlet, also directed by Leon and set inside a powerful Black dynasty, should unfold on a ruined version of Boritt's design. Something -- Floods? Hurricanes? An uprising? -- has laid waste to the estate. The house has been knocked over; an Abrams sign is muddied and lying on the ground; and an interior wall has been ripped free, tilting precariously. It's a startlingly apt framing of our beat-up post-pandemic world; Elsinore, riven by fear, suspicion, and discreetly plotted killings, uncannily mirrors the polarized, COVID-scarred America of 2023.

If Leon's production never quite coalesces, it isn't due to a lack of imagination. It begins with a state funeral, featuring a parade of mourners (some in COVID masks) paying their respects to the late king (represented by flag-draped coffin) as a male quartet delivers attractively arranged gospel settings (by Jason Michael Webb) of passages from Ecclesiastes, John, and Matthew. Solea Pfeiffer, our Ophelia for the evening, ends the services with a heartfelt vocal performance. It's a mellifluous and highly theatrical introduction to Leon's reimagined Denmark.

Leon has other, equally fresh, ideas to deploy in support of his production concept. The Ghost appears via Jeff Sugg's creepily distorted projections and the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, part of Justin Ellington's generally excellent sound design. The Murder of Gonzago, the play designed to subtly accuse Claudius of murder, becomes a rap musical, as if Lin-Manuel Miranda and friends have opted for a tour of Denmark. Ophelia appears at her own funeral, a specter at the obsequies, daintily stepping into her own grave.

Several supporting performances achieve striking variations on well-known characters. Daniel Pearce's Polonius is as amusingly fussy as anyone could wish but, giving his farewell advice to Laertes, his voice breaks with emotion at "To thine own self be true;" the hoariest of lines is transformed into an expression of a father's grief at his son's departure. (Perusing Hamlet's love letters to Ophelia, Polonius giggles nervously over their purple contents until, his parental instincts kicking in, he is stopped cold by Hamlet's reference to her "excellent white bosom.") Mitchell Winter's Rosencrantz wears a look of guilty complicity, uncertain how to act, as Claudius dangles a wad of blood money before him. Greg Hildreth is the funniest Gravedigger in recent memory, scooping up skulls and rolling them like bowling balls.

The production's anchors are the Claudius of John Douglas Thompson and Gertrude of Lorraine Toussaint, forming an unhappy, yet needy, misalliance from the moment we first see them furtively clasping hands at the funeral of Hamlet's father. Thompson's Claudius is unusually conflicted, wracked with guilt yet unwilling to succumb to the demands of his conscience. Enraged by The Murder of Gonzago, he hurls a chair into a nearby pool; in private, however, his torment is palpable. ("Bow, stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel/Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe," he mutters, reaching for a repentance beyond his grasp.) Desperate to maintain control over a deteriorating court, he greets Ophelia's madness with fury, subduing her by wrestling her into a chair. I don't think I've ever seen Claudius played so close to the edge of collapse. Similarly, Toussaint's Gertrude is a quiet alcoholic, taking the poisoned chalice in the final scene in peevish rebellion against Claudius' warnings, which she has clearly heard many times before. The production repeatedly makes the case for their codependency, when he seizes her cocktail glass, then tearfully collapses into her arms, or when, following the stabbing of Polonius, he grabs her in an embrace from which she fearfully struggles to escape.

You may have noticed what is missing; as Hamlet, Ato Blankson-Wood -- a polished, technically skilled actor -- has his moments, discomfiting the court with sarcastic applause for the union of Claudius and Gertrude; rewarding Claudius, who has just punched him out, with an insolent kiss on the cheek; and, in Gertrude's bedroom, running at her, knife in hand, in such a fury that matricide seems a distinct possibility. But the actor never gets past his character's surface disaffection; whenever it looks like he might break through to a deeper, more probing anguish, he skitters off in another direction. It's not an unintelligent performance, but it is surprisingly unfelt, leaving the production without a center. When Claudius and Gertrude appear to be the central characters in Hamlet, something really is off in the state of Denmark.

Ultimately, it is Leon who doesn't manage to pull the production together, despite so many striking contributions, including Pfeiffer's Ophelia, who manages to be both a smart contemporary young woman and Hamlet's pitiable cast-off, slipping into madness over too many bruising losses. The slight feeling of confusion that plagues the proceedings can also be felt in Jessica Jahn's costumes, a roundup of colorful couture ideas that never settles on a prevailing style. (Allen Lee Hughes' lighting is typically seamless and graceful.) We've been lucky in our Hamlets recently, what with Robert Icke's icy staging, featuring Alex Lawther, at Park Avenue Armory last summer, and, in 2020, Yaƫl Farber's noirish revival at St. Ann's Warehouse, featuring a stunningly heartfelt Ruth Negga. This is a thoroughly respectable production, but Boritt's design sets us up for an evening of pity and terror that never arrives.--David Barbour

(28 June 2023)

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