nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 20, 2007
If, by some chance, you're reading this and don't really know what Hamlet is about, then I urge you to see it for yourself at the Pearl Theatre Company. Stop reading and just get yourself some tickets. Seriously. (The rest of you are not excused; please keep reading.)
Because Shepard Sobel's magnificent new production of Hamlet isn't just clear, compelling storytelling; it's a view into the play that's utterly without conceit or presumption. As I watched, I found myself wishing that I didn't know the play at all, because my preconceptions kept getting challenged in such pivotal and interesting ways. The most important of these is who Hamlet is: not a great tragic hero, here, but rather just a confused and possibly spoiled young man on whom events and destiny play a cruel trick, forcing him to grow up quickly and, one imagines, against his will. Mind you, I don't think Sobel is imposing any of this on the play; it's right there, but the baggage of being the Greatest Play Ever Written or whatever has for too long gotten in the way.
Sobel and his actors do something remarkable: they give us, at first, a Hamlet who may be precisely what his elders imagine him to be. Claudius and Gertrude are worried that he's having trouble dealing with some jolting family events—the sudden death of his father, followed, perhaps too closely, by his mother's marriage to his uncle. Polonius, family friend and advisor (and the father of Ophelia, the young lady whom Hamlet has apparently been courting recently), becomes convinced that Hamlet is suffering from unrequited love (and Polonius feels guilty about this because it was he who advised Ophelia to spurn Hamlet's advances, fearing that his employers—who are, after all, the king and queen of Denmark—might not want their heir hanging about with the hired help).
What's revelatory in this Hamlet is that, for at least the first 45 minutes or so, all of what Claudius and Gertrude and Polonius have to say for once feels reasonable and caring; Hamlet, meanwhile, is hearing his dead father's voice and deciding that he needs to put on an "antic disposition" to figure out what he's supposed to do about it. (In a brilliant device, Sobel gives us an Apparition (i.e., Hamlet's Father) that we never see and only hear when Hamlet hears it.) So who's crazy here, and who's simply trying to make the best of a difficult situation?
Except: slowly, stealthily, and, yes (if you know the play), inevitably, Sobel turns the tables on us. "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," the guard Marcellus famously says, and just what that is becomes apparent to us as events unfold. These perfectly reasonable-seeming adults who are in charge turn out to be duplicitous, untrusting, murderous even; we watch Polonius send someone to spy on his son Laertes, at school in France, and later watch Claudius and Gertrude do the same to Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not buffoons in this rendering, but they're mightily stooges, and the moment that Hamlet understands this—which we observe on his open face—his own course starts to become clear.
The performances in this production are exemplary. Dominic Cuskern's Polonius is eminently human and unabashedly political: his self-centered puffery is all about securing his place in the government, which feels like a very smart take on the character. Robin Leslie Brown similarly gives us a Gertrude whose concerns are mostly for herself; but she's so visibly affected by Ophelia's madness that she gains considerable empathy near the play's conclusion. T.J. Edwards is a wonderfully hypocritical Claudius; in the duel scene, when Hamlet realizes what's happened, his preservation impulse kicks in big time. David L. Townsend (Laertes), Jolly Abraham (Ophelia), and Bradford Cover (Horatio) all deliver fine portraits; I liked Cover's hero-worshipping best friend particularly well. Robert Hock, one of the great treasures of the Pearl's acting company, is the voice of the Apparition, the Leading Player, and the Gravedigger, and he is his customary formidable presence in all three roles.
At the center is Sean McNall as Hamlet, turning in a performance that's among the very best Shakespearean portrayals I've ever seen. In the Pearl's intimate setting, we can see this young man slowly transform into the authentic hero that Horatio always knew he could be, and it's thrilling to watch. McNall and Sobel deserve heaps of praise for their work on this production; they're among this city's great unsung theatrical heroes and that needs to change.
I'll conclude with a quick mention of Harry Feiner's deceptively simple set and Stephen Petrilli's evocative lighting, both of which contribute much to the mood and style of the evening.
Sometimes it feels like there are too many Hamlets in any given New York theatre season, but when one of them is this compelling, this resonant, and this downright entertaining, then such a notion becomes irrelevant. The Pearl's Hamlet proves the greatness of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy by coming at it as freshly and fearlessly as its possible to do. It is a kind of revelation.