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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 22, 2016

Chukwudi Iwuji
Photo by Joan Marcus

Hamlet is William Shakespeare's best-known (and most-quoted) play for a reason. In its mixture of raw human emotion, bloody action, and personal and political philosophy, it speaks to us differently at every age, in every age, forever promoting a view of humanity and an interface with it that's both timely and timeless. When all this is combined with a story that focuses on multiple layers of deceit and revenge, Hamlet would on some level seem ideal for The Public Theater's Mobile Unit, which brings free Shakespeare to underserved audiences who may not be able to seek out a classic that strives to explain the complex reasons we do things—and the convoluted, and too often tragic, results from the steps we take.

Patricia McGregor's Mobile Unit production, which is currently playing at The Public's downtown home after completing its tour of New York City's five boroughs, proves that this is the case to about the furthest extent that is conceivably possible. Hamlet (Chukwudi Iwuji) has a stark rebellious streak believably gives way to the dreams for vengeance against his uncle Claudius (Timothy D. Stickney), who murdered Hamlet's father, married his mother, Gertrude (Orlagh Cassidy), and stole the throne somewhere along the way. And his "angry young man" vibes suggest plainly but clearly the relationship he has with his girlfriend, Ophelia (Kristolyn Lloyd), and her brother, Laertes (Christian DeMarais), and the reasons he's so quick to cast them aside.

Certainly, too, the performances bear all this out, with Iwuji leading the way as spurred on by his firecracker temper and barely suppressed disgust for injustice. (Hamlet does not wear a "Black Lives Matter" shirt as part of Montana Levi Blanco's modern-dress costume plot, but it would not be a stretch if he did.) Iwuji is intense, no doubt, navigating both the prince's violent outbursts (he literally throws Ophelia to the ground during the "get thee to a nunnery" exchange) and his more thoughtful rages; there's no hiding that this young man is one whom, like many at his age, is still trying to piece together what his place in the world is, something older actors can miss in their portrayals. But Iwuji doesn't neglect Hamlet's playfulness, either, bringing it out in an exaggerated way that meshes with his spider-web psychology to suggest a bipolar personality in light-speed shift.

Christian DeMarais and Kristolyn Lloyd
Photo by Joan Marcus

Cassidy's imperious-meets-clueless Gertrude is also excellent: malice-free, yes, but almost calculatingly oblivious to the impact her choices have had on those around her. Jeffrey Omura presents a low-key Horatio, who paints an effective contrast with the madness-prone royals surrounding him on all sides. Lloyd (once and future of Dear Evan Hansen) is a luminous Ophelia who earns her ethereality step by step as she tries (and fails) to meet Hamlet on his own terms. Although he radiates genuine authority and a tortured soul as Claudius, Stickney doesn't make the ghost of King Hamlet much of an encouraging force (and it's an uneasy doubling in any case). And though DeMarais starts off on a frat-boy trajectory with Laertes, he descends into a delicious brutality as events against his family force him to grow up well before he's ready. The other actors, who include Christopher Ryan Grant as the Player King, Natalie Woolams-Torres as Rosencrantz (DeMarais doubles as her Guildenstern), and Daniel Pearce are all solid, though Pearce's downscale, guitar-playing Gravedigger is a more palpable hit than his uncentered Polonius.

Perhaps that might not be the case if we got to know Claudius's aging confidant better. But Pearce, like everyone else to one degree or another, is a victim of time—or rather the lack of it. With the script cut at least in half, running just under two hours (I timed it at about 1:45) when essentially uncut productions clock in at four or more, necessarily a lot of material had to be discarded. Hamlet's "speak the speech" speech, the character of Fortinbras, and all references to the countries in which the play unfolds are the most noticeable casualties. McGregor has hit all the big moments, and with the help of Katherine Akiko Day's streamlined scenic design, she keeps the pacing at full throttle, but by shrinking so many of the smaller moments so much, they mean less.

Are there trade-offs? Sure. This mounting is funnier than many, but that happens when you make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern clueless surfer types and give them disproportionate stage time, and emphasize youth at the expense of eternal obligation. And with as gifted an actor as Iwuji tackling them, Hamlet's soliloquies still land with measurable force, and any new interpretation of them is always welcome. But key scenes like Gertrude's colluding with Polonius in her bedchamber, the attempted dishonorable killing of Claudius while praying, and almost everything in the final third (including the final sword fight and its lead-up) have not received the same urgent, respectful treatment.

The good news is that Hamlet holds together well enough as a lean-and-mean story of familial intrigue, and for those who have no other easy access to the play, it's no challenge to imagine many a worse one. But for veterans, what you get doesn't compensate for what you lose. The societal and political context that can make this play unapproachable are critical parts of what it gives it that extra titanic dimension above and beyond even Shakespeare's other masterpieces. Without them, Hamlet can still be good. But, as this production demonstrates, it has a much harder time being great.

Through October 9
The Public Theater - Shiva Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
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