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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 28, 2023

Nick Rehberger, Ato Blankson-Wood, and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
"By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes." OK. Wrong play, but right playwright, and very applicable to the Kenny Leon-helmed Public Theater production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, opening tonight at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Wait until you get a load of Hamlet Sr., the deceased King of Denmark, whose appearance, when it comes, would fit in well with any number of dark tales arising from the depths of hell. (Samuel L. Jackson provides the frightful voice in a performance recorded for this production.) Kudos to Allen Lee Hughes' lighting design, Justin Ellington's sound design, and Jeff Sugg's projection design for what qualifies as an amazing coup de (outdoor) théâtre.

Just don't go looking for the late king when he usually makes his first appearance. It's rare to find a director who, when given the opportunity, fails to tinker with Shakespeare, though for the most part, Leon's emendations cleave closely enough to the original plot that only purists will be disconcerted.

The first and most obvious change is resetting the play to the present time. In lieu of Act I, Scene I, in which Shakespeare provided for the first appearance of the ghost, we open with the funeral of Hamlet Sr., his American flag-draped coffin sitting at center stage as mourners pay their respects while a quartet of "praise singers" (Brandon Gill, Colby Lewis, Laughton Royce, and Lance Alexander Smith) perform on the side.

It's all very solemn. But don't turn away to whisper to your neighbor, because all of a sudden, here come the bride and groom, Hamlet's mother Gertrude (Lorraine Toussaint), and treacherous uncle Claudius (John Douglas Thompson, always a theatrical treasure). Behold, as Hamlet (Ato Blankson-Wood) himself would later note, "the funeral baked meats coldly furnish forth the marriage tables."

It all makes for quite an opening, and between that, the eventual heart-hammering appearance of the ghost, and a few other flourishes, the first half of the evening whizzes by. True, if you are quite familiar with Shakespeare's script, you'll notice that some speeches have been moved to different places and some of the language has been modernized. Then there is the interpolation of singing and rap performances from time to time. But still, it is recognizably Hamlet, and Blankson-Wood plays the conflicted prince with great skill. As Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, notes in the Playbill, "every production must investigate [Hamlet's] madness and melancholy anew." In this case, I'd go along with the assessment made by Polonius (Daniel Pearce, a delightful presence), "that he's mad, 'tis true." Or perhaps bipolar, dancing between bouts of depression and mania.

But it is not only Hamlet you'll want to keep your eye on. The other key figure to watch is Claudius. John Douglas Thompson gives this nasty piece of business some real complexity. His Claudius is the quintessential modern self-serving politico who, having managed to get rid of the competition, has no idea of how to move beyond his cowardly narcissism (remember, he lets his wife inadvertently drink poison rather than intervene) and actually be the king he committed fratricide to become. Likewise, watch Lorraine Toussaint's Gertrude, a mother who pays lip service to her son but who makes it clear with whom her loyalties lie (until, yes, that poisoned wine). Also adding much to the proceedings in Solea Pfeiffer as Ophelia, giving one terrific mad scene. The rest of the cast is quite strong as well, including Nick Rehberger as Laertes and Greg Hildreth as the Gravedigger. My only quibble might be with the too fey portrayal of the courtier Osric (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), who presides over the play's final dueling scene.

All told, this is a fine production of Shakespeare's longest play. The second half could use some of the flourishes that make the first half fly by, but Kenny Leon and the cast give us a Hamlet that rarely falters and often grabs us by the lapels, thrillingly and entertainingly.

Through August 6, 2023
Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park
Delacorte Theater, 81 Central Park West