August 19, 2017

A "Hamlet" Without a Semblance of Majesty

Hamlet is hands down the world's most famous play. People who have never been inside a theater quote its lines "To be, or not to be" and "To thine own self be true." And parodies and homages have been done by everyone from Tom Stoppard to The Simpsons (click here to see the latter's).

Yet every time I see a production of Hamlet, I tell myself it's the last time I'm going to sit through four-hours of watching Shakespeare's grieving Danish prince decide if and how to avenge the death of his father. Then an intriguing actor gets cast in it or an interesting director signs on to helm it and I find myself wooed back to Elsinore Castle once more.

But Sam Gold's current production at the Public Theater, starring Oscar Isaac in the title role and running through Sept. 3, may be the straw that finally breaks the camel's back for me. I don't know if it's just my exhaustion with the play itself or my aversion to Gold's eccentric interpretation of it but I liked almost nothing about this production, even though it's become the must-see show of the summer for the hipster set.

Gold is a master at collaborating on new works such as Annie Baker's early plays, the Tony-award winning musical Fun Home or Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2, one of the few straight plays currently running on Broadway. But Gold, who spent several formative years as an assistant director and dramaturge for the proto-experimental theater company The Wooster Group, also likes to bring his modernist sensibility to classic plays.

 Alas, the stripped down approach he's taken to plays such as the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2012 revival of Look Back in Anger or last season's Broadway outing of The Glass Menagerie haven't worked for me at all. His reinterpretations come off as though he is far more interested in showing off his own cleverness instead of the play's.

As is his want, Gold has reduced the main set for his Hamlet to a folding table and a few chairs that hardly merit the services of a gifted scenic designer like David Zinn. Similarly, he's instructed costume designer Kaye Voyce to dress the actors in jeans, T shirts, hoodies, cargo shorts and other leisure wear, although I dare anyone to tell me why since his concept doesn't extend to drawing any parallels between Shakespeare's world and the contemporary one in which people wear such outfits.

More distinguishing costumes might have served another purpose too. For Gold has cut the cast down to nine actors, which means everyone, with the exception of Isaac, has to take on double and even triple roles. It not only makes it hard to keep track of who is being whom but at times that casting decision really mucks up the storytelling. 

Hamlet famously stages a play within the play so that he can gauge the reaction of his stepfather Claudius, whom he suspects of having poisoned the prince's father. But neither he nor we in the audience can see Claudius' response because the actor playing Claudius is at the moment playing someone else.

Gold tries to make up for the confusion by having an onstage musician play various instruments to signal how we should respond to major moments in the play. But sometimes the music drowns out the dialog. Other times, it's just annoying. There's even gratuitous underscoring during the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. If an actor can't convey the emotion of that speech on his own, he shouldn't be cast in the first place.

Isaac is totally capable of doing so and gives an intense and intelligent performance but its power is often undercut by all the folderol, including his having to take off his pants and play large chunks of the role in his underwear, Gold's too on-the-nose way of indicating when Hamlet is pretending to be mad (click here to read more about the actor's decision to take on the role).

The rest of the cast is uneven, ranging from a mystifying turn by Gayle Rankin who plays Ophelia as though she were the robust captain of a girl's hockey team instead of a fragile noblewoman driven mad by grief and unrequited love, to Peter Friedman's full-bodied performance as the vainglorious chief counselor Polonius, conveying the character's inherent humor but also his dignity as well, despite the fact that Gold stages a long scene with the counselor sitting on a toilet.   

Somewhere in the middle is the comedian Keegan-Michael Key, whose primary role is Hamlet's bestie Horatio. Although probably best known for playing President Obama's angry alter ego Luther on the sketch comedy show "Key & Peele," Key trained as a classical actor and handles the Bard's lines with finesse (click here to read an interview with him).

However Key also portrays one of the players in the play within a play and has clearly been directed to give a go-for-the-belly-laughs performance that fits in with Gold's determination to present Hamlet as part comedy. The schtick clearly delighted the audience the night my friend Ellie and I saw the play but I found it to be just a few degrees short of ludicrous.

But even getting tickets to see this Hamlet proved to be a pain in the ass. Seduced by what Isaac might do with the role, I hopped online the moment the tickets went on sale back in March and got seats for a couple of weeks after the show was scheduled to open on July 14.  But a few hours before my performance, I got an email telling me that night's show had been canceled because of an actor's illness.

When I called to exchange my tickets, the reservationist tried to persuade me to take a Saturday matinee performance. I insisted on a weeknight and it's a good thing I did cause a week later, the Public canceled all Saturday matinees (click here to read more about that). According to press reports, the Public said that "the intensity that Hamlet requires of our actors over the four-hour show is starting to take a toll."

I understand exactly how they feel.

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