nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
June 17, 2008
I have always thought that Hamlet was about Hamlet, but in the current production running at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, the main character stands off center. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the supporting actors are all quite good, and the director's concept is engaging. Hamlet may be the largest role in Shakespeare's canon, but Hamlet is a large, vast, five-act wonder that is not just a revenge play but a political commentary on the divine right of succession and on the exigencies of governance through military power.
Directed by artistic director Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production comes in at around three hours and 30 minutes. It is engrossing, due especially to some fine acting, and it is thought-provoking, particularly because the Fortinbras subplot remains intact.
For those unfamiliar with the play, the Fortinbras subplot can be confusing—which is probably why it is so often expurgated. Here, though, Eustis has made judicious cuts and taken care that we "get" the background, a challenge because Fortinbras is only talked about in the third person: Fortinbras only appears at the end of the play, in a sort of twisted deus ex machina. Here's the subplot: Fortinbras's father was killed in battle by Hamlet's father, forfeiting certain lands. Now, young Fortinbras intends to avenge his father's death and reclaim these lands. An emissary is send to the King of Norway, Fortinbras's uncle, to quell the firebrand's ardor and convince him not to attack Denmark. Norway achieves this peace, with the caveat that Fortinbras shall pass through Denmark on his way to fight in Poland. At the play's end, when Fortinbras is passing back through Denmark, he finds the ruling family decimated and has Denmark handed to him as a dying wish from Hamlet. Eustis gives us an added shock at the end, which I won't reveal here. Suffice to say in this Hamlet, Hamlet's death is tragic, the carnage revolting, and Denmark itself destroyed.
If not Hamlet, then who or what is at the center of Eustis's production? Physically, the center is the grave of Hamlet's father. Set designer David Korins gives us a "sterile promontory" of slate, taking up most of the playing area, with King Hamlet's grave, signified by an eternal flame (reminiscent of the flame in Arlington National Cemetery), down stage center. Against this ever-present flame is a backdrop of a massive white rivet-studded edifice, topped with a gallery that serves as the castle ramparts (and ingeniously also as a ship). So, dominating the playhouse is a post-industrial war machine fronted by a lonely grave. Thus, metaphysically, the death of King Hamlet is at the center of this production; the catalyst for the story is always there, represented by the flame, and everything else revolves around it.
Hamlet's orbit of events circles and intersects those of Claudius, Gertrude, and the Polonius family, all given excellent portrayals by a talented cast. Andre Braugher brings a surprising humanity to Claudius without losing the strength of his authority. Margaret Colin's Gertrude aptly conveys her tortured soul, torn by love, remorse, and maternal instincts. Sam Waterston, who played The Public's first Hamlet in the Park in 1975, gives us a charmingly honest and poignant Polonius. Too often Polonius is played as a buffoon; here, Waterston refreshingly gives us the humanity of a man who truly loves his children and who is coping as best he can with the onslaught of old age. As Laertes, David Harbour, renders a man who believably wears all his emotions on his sleeve. As Ophelia, Lauren Ambrose quite simply breaks our hearts.
Of the other actors, Jay O. Sanders deserves particular mention. His triple bill of the Ghost, the Player King, and the Grave Digger, showcases the talented versatility of a seasoned Shakespearean.
As Hamlet, Michael Stuhlbarg gives us his all. His is an emotional Hamlet, one who is profoundly in mourning for the loss of his father and extremely aggrieved at the concomitant loss of his mother through marriage to his uncle. This Hamlet has wit, too, and is clearly at home when he elicits audience laughter. There is a slight tendency to treat the famous soliloquies as set speeches and not as the engines of the plot, the means for a man with a problem to try and work things out. But this is a quibble that will work itself out with the playing. Stuhlbarg is at his best when he is speaking simply, when he is holding "the mirror up to nature" and speaking his speeches "trippingly on the tongue."
With costumes expertly designed by Ann Hould-Ward, the tragedy has a contemporary feel without specific roots in the present day. The time period from the costumes seems to span the later half of the 20th century. Gertrude seems to be rooted in the late '50s and early '60s, wearing a skirt suit reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy, and a dress tight-waisted with a full petticoat skirt. Some of the uniforms harken to the fascist '30s; some look like Third World junta uniforms; some are slick beret revolutionary. The men mostly wear suits that could span many decades. The weaponry is all post-WWII. Add all this to the wonderful sound design by Acme Sound Partners, which uses the sounds of jet engines surging overhead to great effect, and we know we are somewhere close to the present, but with a slight distancing from the story. It is, after all, a tale told, not reality TV.
A note must be made of the lighting design by Michael Chybowski. He has taken the huge set and made it intimate or grand, as need be. The lights never call attention to themselves, except in those instances when effects are required. It is an excellent job.
Eustis makes use of the entire playing area, including the audience, in entertaining and sometimes surprising ways. There are times when one sees too much of actors' backs, though this may be due to the unwieldy sightlines at the Delacorte. My one wish is that The Public consider moving up the start time of its longer productions—as it is now, it makes for a very late evening when one factors in late night transportation. At any rate, this production is certainly worth seeing. You may or may not agree with Eustis's concept, but it is engaging theatre that will most certainly leave you with some indelible images and provocative ideas.