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Theatre Review by Wendy Guida

Hamlet is a gigantic ocean liner which some directors steer into icebergs, while others never actually take it out of port. They pretend to, and even try to direct your gaze to the horizon to convince you you're out at sea, but then you notice that the ropes are still tied safely to the bollard. Personally, I prefer a big smash up to an imaginary voyage, but there are also those rare instances in which the director succeeds in taking a compelling journey. For the most part, Andrei Serban's new Hamlet at the Public Theatre succeeds, and where it does not, at least it fails in interesting ways.

Andrei Serban is a fun director. He works in images, tapping into dream-like visions of the collective unconscious. His work reminds me of something Richard Goldman, one of my favorite professors in college, said: "I love Shakespeare; I don't worship him. I don't think he needs it." Serban, too, loves Shakespeare, and if he does not worship him, he does respect him. The world of his stage is ripe with surprising textures and unexpected images. His actors understand their parts and savor every line. What is more, he plumbs the text for humor and finds it without sinking to cheap laughs. This is something which is often lost in over-reverent productions.

I have been following the career of Liev Schreiber (right) for several years. I liked him very much in Walking and Talking, a small indie film about contemporary romance, and he was one very bright spot in a rather painful recent Macbeth. With this play, Schreiber establishes himself as solidly innovative yet reliable actor. His Hamlet walks a tightrope suspended between sarcastic humor and grief, and his choices never fail. It is a beautiful thing to watch.

Other than Schreiber, the great stand out is Colm Feore, whose Claudius is a hypersexed snake-oil salesman. He brings to vivid life Hamlet's line that "one may smile and smile and be a villain." Feore's interpretation of Claudius' soliloquy as he tries to pray is the best I have ever seen. He rules over a Denmark which, probably in part due to the nature of his reign, is as scary as an insane asylum. Claudius is often played with an almost Machiavellian evil, but Feore's Claudius is more frightening for his banality; he is selfish and cruel, but very human, and therein lies his threat.

The women in the play are less well served. Serban's Denmark is rotten in that it is utterly debauched. As a result, Diane Venora plays Gertrude as an addled nymphomaniac. Was it really necessary to have Polonius tell his theories about the cause of her son's behavior while Gertrude is wrapped, post-coital, in a sheet? Similarly, Lynn Collins' Ophelia turns the eating of an ice cream cone into an X-rated act. Both women's roles are problematic, and though these are not the choices I would have made, at least they are bold and consistent.

Where the play fails: what the heck is going on with the giant sandbox in the second act? And why are there three apparitions when King Hamlet's ghost appears? (I could probably come up with plausible interpretations, but these things just don't work for me.) Serban also overdoes an incestuous relationship between Laertes and Ophelia; where Shakespeare has drawn with whisper-light strokes we need not throw on buckets of paint. Perhaps the most unfortunate part was that the ending felt a bit rushed and I was not moved by Horatio's last words over Hamlet's body. If we don't cry when Hamlet dies then someone has not done his job. The most moving Hamlet that I have seen was actually Mel Gibson's. Feel free to email me if you agree or disagree. The key with Hamlet is never to try to create the definitive one. When people do, they end up getting too heavy-handed and taking themselves much to seriously. Serban, possessing a more playful touch, finds the joy in the text and takes us on a terrific ride; that is indeed worthy of praise.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Andrei Serban. Scenic Design by John Coyne. Costume Design by Marina Draghici. Lighting Design by Michael Chybowski. Sound Design by Donald DiNicola and Obadiah Eaves. Original Music by Elizabeth Swados. Screen Art Design by Marielle Bancou. Starring (in alphabetical order): David Wilson Barnes, Christian Camargo, Justin Campbell, Lynn Collins, Colm Feore, Dion Flynn, Jonathan Fried, Andrew Garman, Adam Greer, Marc Gwinn, Francis Jue, Richard Libertini, Hamish Linklater, George Morfogen, Robert Alexander Owens, Liev Schreiber, Jeremy Shamos, Wendy Rich Stetson, Diane Venora, Robin Weigert.

Theatre: The Public Theatre, Newman Theatre, Astor Place.

Schedule: Tues. - Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 2pm & 8pm; Sun. at 3pm. Through January 2, 2000.

Tickets: $45. Call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or purchase tickets in person at the box office. -- Wendy Guida

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