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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 13, 2017

Charlayne Woodard, Ritchie Coster, and Company
Photo by Carol Rosegg

To see, or not to see? If that is your question about director Sam Gold's take on Hamlet at the Public Theater, maybe we should talk. Because if this be madness, it is hard to figure out the method in it other than to distract and obfuscate.

Gold, who certainly has earned a reputation as an outstanding and clear-eyed director (A Doll's House, Part 2, Fun Home, and many other fine productions), has another side to his personality that periodically shows up. It takes the form of the kid who loves taking things apart but is rather at a loss as to how to put them back together again.

We've seen this with his highly stylized, stripped-down versions of modern classics like John Osborne's Look Back In Anger and Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. There's a sort of "let's try this and see what happens" vibe to these efforts, as if we were watching the creative process at work (though these kinds of things are usually better dealt with during the early phase of rehearsals). With Hamlet, however, the gimmicky physical production seems to have gotten most of the attention, while Shakespeare's play gets lost in the shuffle, popping through only occasionally, like sunshine on a cloudy day.

If you like your Shakespeare to be performed by actors who are expertly conversant with the Bard's poetic cadences, it might well be worth your while just to catch that ray of sunshine, Ritchie Coster as Claudius, King of Denmark and Hamlet's murderous uncle. The actor dominates the stage whenever he's given the opportunity to do so, imparting as good a rendition of Claudius as I can recall seeing over multitudes of Hamlets. His King is a wily, self-serving, and suspicious ruler, quite prepared to sacrifice everyone and everything to hang on to what he has stolen. An interesting touch has Coster also playing the ghost of Hamlet's father, a part he performs with equal skill.

Of the rest of the cast, Charlayne Woodard as Queen Gertrude and Anatol Yusef as Laertes also do well with making Shakespeare's 16th century language accessible to modern audiences. Of course, neither Claudius, nor Gertrude, nor Laertes is the central character. That would be Hamlet himself, played here by Oscar Isaac, better known for his science fiction/fantasy movie performances in such fare as "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and "X-Men: Apocalypse."

Isaac deserves a lot of credit for taking on one of the richest and most complex roles in the Shakespeare canon. As literature's famous "melancholy Dane," Isaac's line deliveries are rather more contemporary in style, but even so, he is able to hit those lyrical high notes (the "Get thee to nunnery scene" is quite potent, as are his interactions with the visiting Players). He also gives a bravely physical performance, jumping onto the furniture and engaging with abandon in the fight and dueling scenes. As you may have heard, he also runs around in his (modest) underwear about half the time. Apparently, this is Gold's interpretation of Ophelia's description of Hamlet as appearing before her "with his doublet all unbraced." Performing the role of Ophelia, Gayle Rankin comes off as something of a cross between a tough girl punk/goth combo and her daddy's obedient child, a confusing presentation of the character, but at least that psychological mix could help explain her descent into madness and suicide.

Assuredly, there is plenty of room for tinkering within a production of any Shakespeare play, provided the result does something to enlighten or clarify or offer up a new interpretation. But here, it seems as though an assortment of odds and ends were tossed in, helter-skelter. What do we make of the stripped-down set design that consists of a folding table (that often functions as a flower-strewn bier) and a set of four chairs? And what about the costumes which, with the exception of the regal gown worn by Ms. Woodard's Queen Gertrude, mostly look as though they might have been picked from a consignment bin of mismatched, cast-off leisurewear from a couple of decades ago. And, oh, let's not forget the bathroom with its often-in-use toilet; at one point, we find Polonius (Peter Friedman) sitting on the "throne" with his pants pulled down to his ankles; at another, we discover Ophelia on her knees, vomiting into it. How did we get from Elsinore Castle to all this? And why?

The toilet stuff (when in doubt, interject another flushing sound to break up the "boring" speeches) and other moments throughout the production effectively set off laughter among the audience. In fact, Gold has gone out of his way to trip up Shakespeare's great tragedy in order to milk every potentially comic moment through the use of exaggerated design or line readings. Isaac's Hamlet, for instance, is not only cynical; he is a master of the put-down zinger, especially in his interplay with Polonius. The insults are Shakespeare's of course, but the delivery is all Gold. Almost by way of recompense, Mr. Friedman later gets his turn as "top banana" when he switches instantaneously from the role of the dead Polonius to that of the chief gravedigger. Just before that happens, though, there is a sequence of dizzying, quite bizarre actions going on related to Ophelia's madness and death. No spoilers, but it involves a lot of dirt and a garden hose.

We do need to recognize and salute the contributions of on-stage cellist Ernst Reuseger, who performs the jazz riffs and Philip Glass-like music that underscore the goings-on. But everything else during the three hour, forty-five minute running time bears the mark of Sam Gold up to his neck in his most tinkering, deconstructive mode. And it pretty much engulfs everything, so that we are consistently drawn toward the odd array and constant shifting of smoke and mirrors instead of to Shakespeare's words. All in all, it is difficult to fathom what Gold had in mind. If he's shooting for an absurdist version of Hamlet, Tom Stoppard already did that quite successfully with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Otherwise, there's precious little to be found here that contributes to our understanding of the play; every gimmick in use could be thrown at any production of any play, with the same nonsensical effect. It most certainly is a head-scratcher.

Through September 3
Anspacher Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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