Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The Public Theater at Lafayette and Astor Place
BS Rating: C+
Show-Score Rating: 60
Sam Gold’s production of Hamlet at the Public Theater is just that: SAM GOLD’s production. It has the hallmarks of his recent interpretations of classic works: minimalist design, modern street dress, emphasis on text while rather than the writing style, lights on the audience during the first act. This approach brought some interesting portrayals and unique insights in his production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” and many viewers felt his recent “Othello” at New York Theatre Workshop had a similar effect.
But each of those productions had lead actors who were capable of living in their reinterpretations of the classic. In “Glass Menagerie,” Sally Field and Joe Mantella abandoned the accents and stripped their characters of most of their embellishments, but there was never a moment that you did not believe they were experiencing what they were expressing. Mr. Gold’s “Hamlet” is filled with competent actors. They make sense of the lines; they reflect emotion; they put emphasis where emphasis is required. But you never feel they are living their characters’ lives.
At the head of the cast, Oscar Isaac knows his craft. He delivers Shakespeare’s lines with a clarity of meaning and colored with appropriate emotion. He dominates the stage. But I never felt like he was experiencing the tortured indecisiveness that is at the core of Hamlet’s being. His interpretation is broad and aggressive with little questioning. If Hamlet were that assured, those of us in the audience would not have to wait four hours for him to seek revenge. However, even allowing for that textual inconsistency, Mr. Isaac’s Hamlet never seems to have any internal life. Even in the famous “To be, or not to be” speech, he seems to be debating a philosophical idea rather personally reflecting on how “conscience makes cowards of us all.” In fairness, Hamlet is one of those roles that really requires an actor with great natural magnetism; no amount of craft can substitute for that rare quality.
Without a riveting Hamlet, there is little the other actors can do to make this any more than a competent but insignificant production. And that company is truly a mixed bag. Ritchie Coster as Claudius demonstrates the skills of an experienced classical actor. Even though Shakespeare shares very little about Claudius’ internal conflicts or even his motivations, he is a man who killed his brother and married the brother’s widow. Coster gives him a sort of “Trumpian” pushiness along with little awareness of its effect. Peter Friedman gives Polonius more dimension than this character is usually accorded. There are certainly times when Friedman’s Polonius evokes the laughter so commonly associated with this role; but Friedman also makes him a voice of reason and his advice is treated as good advice. Anatol Yusef brings a background in the Royal Shakespeare Company to Laertes and it shows. He is able to inhabit the character and we feel his tragedy within the tragedy.
Neither Charlayne Woodward as Gertrude or Gayle Rankin as Ophelia live up to the potential of their roles. Ms. Woodward is in a character-defining costume – a baggy maroon dress with huge arms and legs that swell when she moves – that suggest a woman of style and strength. But Ms. Woodward’s Gertrude is almost meek. It’s never clear how she is responding to Claudius or Hamlet and Mr. Gold consistently places her out of focus. Gayle Rankin is miscast as Ophelia, but she is certainly not helped by the costume and hair style she has been given. A dark baggy romper suit topped by a heavy gray men’s sweeter with a rolled-up hair-do usually found on 19th century downstairs servants. Nothing in her performance (or appearance) make her look or sound like the love of Hamlet’s life.
Keegan-Michael Key plays the ever-loyal Horatio and carries it off fairly well. There is a wonderful moment in Hamlet’s advice to the players when he discusses keeping the clowns in check with Mr. Isaac looking accusingly at Mr. Key. In Mr. Gold’s typical (and frequently laudable) embrace of casting-against-type, Roberta Colindrez (the original Joan, the college-lover in “Fun Home”) plays Rosencrantz. It’s not clear what (if anything) Mr. Gold means to be saying in this odd casting, but Ms. Colindrez is terribly miscast. She looks and sounds silly especially against the entirely successful casting of Matthew Saldivar as Guildenstern. Both of these “gentlemen of the court” are dressed for a bar-b-que in the back yard.
BTW – All the other roles are played by one of the nine members of the company. In a wonderfully effective piece of direction, Mr. Friedman and Ms. Rankin (the dead Claudius and Ophelia) play the grave diggers. If only the other choices Mr. Gold made were as clever and potentially insightful as the dead father and daughter discussing the appropriateness of the daughter’s burial and the legacy of the dead. Instead, we have another example of the director’s style without the requisite connections between his style and what he is trying to communicate to the audience. Style should be in service of meaning, not the opposite.