The Siegel Column

Hammy Hamlet has its moments but far and few between

The Public's production of Hamlet at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park is a highly watchable train wreck. Bad theater can often be riveting, and while there are times when this play neither captures the conscience of the King nor the consciousness of the audience, there are also times when even the wrongheaded conception of the play is fun to watch. Principal among these is the nutty yet entertaining interpretation of the title character by Michael Stuhlbarg.

Director Oskar Eustis gives us a production in which Hamlet, from start to almost finish, is as mad as a hatter. Rather than pretending to be crazy to hide his suspicions and discover the truth, this Hamlet is a maniac who has occasional flashes of perception. Stuhlbarg is a bold, exciting actor, so watching him act crazy on a sultry evening in the park has a kicky appeal. The stumbling block is that the performance leads to diminishing returns insofar as the play itself is concerned.

Like Stuhlbarg, David Harbour as Laertes plays his role more for comedy than drama. He earns his early laughs but this, too, only serves to undercut our belief in his passionate later return. Worse, Margaret Colin as Gertrude is almost non-existent. She makes virtually no impact whatsoever; it's almost as if she recedes into the impressive David Korins set. On the other hand, Andre Braugher, as the late King's ambitious brother Claudius, overacts wildly. Only two actors seem to be fully invested in Shakespeare's Hamlet, and they are Jay O. Sanders as both the ghost of the King and the gravedigger, and Lauren Ambrose who plays a truly tragic Ophelia. Would that her Hamlet was worthy of her.

Jollyship the Whiz-Bang

The current hit show at Ars Nova that combines puppets, live actors, rock music and a slew of anachronistic jokes goes by the memorable title Jollyship the Whiz-Bang. The title might just be the best part of the show.

This rock musical created by Nick Jones and Raja Azar (both of whom also star) begins as an aggressively sophomoric pirate story of a crazed captain leading his motley crew on the high seas in search of mythical Party Island. Drug jokes, sex jokes, black humor abound, none of which you would hear in a traditional pirate story. But then, these are not traditional pirates. The captain, the first mate and the cabin boy are all puppets, but then, so too is a crab with an English twit accent. The puppet work, compared to a show like Avenue Q, is less than rudimentary. If you're expecting cleverly manipulated Punch & Judy puppets, this is not the show for you. The production revels in its low-tech limitations, which might have been a plus had the show, itself, been more entertaining. There is the feeling of a Saturday Night Live over-extended sketch here with lots of good ideas beaten into the ground.

As for the score, if you're expecting songs that drive the plot and deepen character, man, are you at the wrong show. The music is loud and repetitious and, except for the upbeat and catchy "Party Island" number, the rest of the score is not memorable. We hasten to add, however, that the young, rock oriented audience that saw the show the night we were there all seemed to enjoy both the music and the show. And it is, indeed, a hit, extending to July 20. Nonetheless, we thought director Sam Gold could have/should have tightened what is a meandering and overlong two-hour show with an intermission into a swift seventy-minute one-act. We still wouldn't have liked it, but we would have disliked it less.

Arias with a Twist

Basil Twist is a genius with puppets. But he's no writer. Nor is Joey Arias. Together, they've created a show that is a small-scale visual extravaganza built upon a story so thin that calling it a mere excuse for a show is giving it too much credit. The show, Arias with a Twist, which is playing to packed houses downtown at Here, is less a story than it is a visual stream of consciousness.

It begins with Joey in full drag regalia, being abducted by aliens and getting an intergalactic anal probe. Somehow or other we eventually get to New York where Joey, like Godzilla, hovers over the buildings and stomps through the streets, crushing people beneath her feet and chewing on subway cars. Of course, it isn't easy ending a story when you haven't been telling one, so there are several spectacular scenes, any one of which might have sufficed as a finale. Our favorite is the Busby Berkeley moment when the stage fills with a row of female dancing girls ala The Rockettes, plus a phantasmagoric creation of dancing legs, complete with mirrors so you can see it from above like you would in a movie. Or a Mel Brooks musical.

The line readings by Arias are slow, painful and full of wink, wink, wink. Lots of heavy-lidded double takes that cry out, "Did you get the double-meaning?" Arias, though, is very much a downtown icon and is merely fulfilling the needs of his image. You will either enjoy who and what Arias is or you will not. There is no denying, however, Basil Twist's imagination. As both a puppeteer and a director, he shows his creations off well. All he needs now is a writer.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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