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Shakespeare in the Park

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Stuhlbarg
Photo by Michal Daniel.

When Elizabeth Kübler-Ross introduced her model for the Five Stages of Grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, she must have been foreseeing Michael Stuhlbarg's performance in the title role of the new production of Hamlet at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

The Danish prince first appears bitter and brooding, swathed in black from his foot to his hair, which is slicked back with the precision of an irrepressible obsessive-compulsive. Sitting on his suitcase and pondering those universe-twisting infelicities that always float through Hamlets' minds, he's the very picture of denial. No, his eyes scream during the rare occasions he looks up from his dazed reverie, this can't be happening. What young man hasn't felt the same upon his own father's death? Granted, not every college student must cope with his father's brother assuming the throne and his mother marrying the new king before her husband's body is cold, but those are just details, details, details.

This, of course, leads to bargaining and anger, as Hamlet assumes the charge set forth by his father's restless ghost, who demands his son's fealty in pursuing the ever-noble art of revenge against the murderer (and new king) Claudius. Depression ensues - and ensues, and ensues - when the young Hamlet's traps for his uncle don't spring properly. Then there's finally acceptance, when Hamlet holds aloft the skull of his one-time playmate Yorick and realizes with piercing clarity the ultimate fate that awaits him.

There's a pleasing synchronicity to all this, which gives both Stuhlbarg and Oskar Eustis's rigidly intelligent mounting a vital locomotion through over three hours of percussive existential extemporizing. One would think that if anyone could humanize this clinically cynical an interpretation, it would be Stuhlbarg: The appealing young actor has demonstrated in plays as diverse in substance and style as The Pillowman, The Voysey Inheritance, and Measure for Pleasure a keen ability for juggling the countless conflictions of young men at major emotional crossroads.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Lauren Ambrose.
Photo by Michal Daniel.

Now, however, Stuhlbarg is encumbered by the weight of expectation. In struggling to make one of Shakespeare's greatest creations come to life, he must battle not only the ghosts of the great actors of the past who've put their own indelible stamps on the role, but also a throng of strong-personality costars (including Margaret Colin, Sam Waterston, and Lauren Ambrose) who display much of the invention and individuality he lacks. As a result, Stuhlbarg's usual buoyancy gives way to little more than a stop-motion animated epic of spiritual self-understanding.

It's an all-star feature, though: That initial, morose Hamlet is pure Keanu Reeves, acting as though his furrowed brow alone can convey distensive discontent; those legendary mad scenes alternate between the impish, angle-smiled Jack Black and the hairspray-draining mad scientist Roger Bart is sending up in Broadway's Young Frankenstein; and when he goes straightforward and serious, he's pure Kevin Kline - classic training with a hint of corrosive lime.

This leaves Stuhlbarg insufficient time to deploy any of the charm in his personal arsenal. We see the glint buried deep behind Stuhlbarg's catalog of affectations only well after the intermission, after Hamlet has stripped himself of the excess and come to terms with his unwitting destiny. But it's too late to start loving Hamlet at that point - only if you relate to him immediately does the scope of his losses and gains at the hands of both sides of his family have enough time to develop into an affecting tale of love and loyalty gone haywire. Otherwise, you get what you get here: a series of isolated moments, not a fluid narrative.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Margaret Colin and André Braugher.
Photo by Michal Daniel.

This, then, is that rare Hamlet where nearly everyone else makes a stronger impression. As Hamlet's mother Gertrude, Colin is a delicious blend of imperiousness and opportunism, mining rich significance from every glare that attempts to bore beneath her son's veneer and discern his unstated motives. Ambrose is such a smart, willful Ophelia that her disintegration in the heat of Hamlet's withering cruelty is an unusually tragic loss. (Adventurous producers might do well casting her as the Prince of Denmark sometime.)

David Harbour, as Ophelia's hot-blooded and protective brother Laertes, and Jay O. Sanders, playing Hamlet's father, the Player King, and that philosophical gravedigger, find more natural, less-intrusive earth tones in their key roles than do most actors in their places. Somewhat less successful, if still highly watchable, are Waterston as a strangely spry Polonius, André Braugher as a preternaturally agitated Claudius, and Kevin Carroll as a vapid, chess-pawn Horatio.

But even they find sparks of original inspiration in their characters that Stuhlbarg, while technically adept, does not. He has a magnetic presence, suggesting the untapped potential of a nuclear reactor waiting to be activated. And his voice is ideal for plowing through those world-famous speeches, with sad notes of tentativeness forever echoing beneath his outward resolve.

Yet his deliveries of those monologues and soliloquies only reflect his confused provenance within Eustis's modern-dress world. David Korins's set may depict a heavy-lockdown castle compound, but Stuhlbarg's readings are every bit as time-tested as the text itself. As but one example, he slows his antic stalking down to a crawl when it's time to ponder "To be or not to be," as though chewing on these most-analyzed (and most-overanalyzed) words in the English language theatre is somehow more important than illuminating them for a modern audience.

Approaches like this - and some of Eustis's own, particularly the finale that raggedly recasts Norwegian prince Fortinbras (Piter Marek) as yet another in a line of hopelessly corrupt royals - brand this Hamlet as an event rather than a play. That dilutes much of the impact of the superb secondary performers and the play as a whole, but as always, the star's the thing: While Stuhlbarg's previous portrayals suggest a great Hamlet exists somewhere within him, he won't find it until he becomes less concerned with his character's well-established external darkness and more readily walks toward his own worthy inner light.

Through June 29
Shakespeare in the Park
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
This year, free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park will only be distributed at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park or via a new virtual line opportunity at The Public Theater will not be distributing tickets downtown at 425 Lafayette Street due to ongoing construction on the exterior of the building.
Performances: Tues, Wed, Th, Fri, Sat, and Sun at 8:00 pm