-- By William Shakespeare

-- The Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park

-- Directed by Kenny Leon

-- Costumes by Jessica Jahn

-- Set by Beowulf Boritt

-- With:

-- Ato Blankson-Wood 

-- Nick Rehberger

-- Daniel Pearce

-- Solea Pfeiffer

-- John Douglas Thompson

-- Lorraine Toussaint

-- Hamlet is The Public Theater’s major production in Central Park this summer. I saw it in preview. Director Kenny Leon has given us an interpretation with a solid foundation as a domestic tragedy. There’s some terrific acting. But Mr. Leon peppers the production with such a variety of spices that we’re sometimes bewildered. His combining of styles that we find in the show is simultaneously post-modernist and Elizabethan.

To begin with, the set is inscrutable — a modern mansion that seems to have half-fallen into a fissure of the earth. To indicate that we’re in Atlanta in 2020, there’s a large Stacey Abrams 2020 sign that’s half-buried in the lawn. There’s also a Jeep that’s been driven into the shore water of a pond. How are we to interpret these icons? Are they intended to indicate decay? The failure of the progressive movement?

Mr. Leon has said (In The Atlantic) “It was important to me to have Hamlet’s side of the family be Black and Polonius’s side of the family be white or mixed race.” But what are we to make of this choice? Does the American Black community relate to the American white community as Old King Hamlet’s family relates to Polonius’ family? In what way? 

Songs turn up from time to time — wonderful! The show opens with a quartet singing at old King Hamlet’s coffin. It’s great that they sing “For everything there is a season…” and “When you go, you have to go alone”.

We see something of old King Hamlet’s ghost projected on to the face of that house. It’s a miasma, like a parody of a 50’s sci-fi movie — it’s too weird. But when the ghost speaks, the young Hamlet becomes possessed and speaks the ghost’s words, wildly amped and distorted  — great!

There’s sound beneath much of the dialogue. It’s not intrusive; it’s merely superfluous. 

Some of Jessica Jahn’s costumes are wonderful — gorgeous, flowing gowns for Gertrude. But Guildernstern looks like he just stepped out of the cast of Rent, with plaid pants and a yellow jacket. Some of the men wear fezes — very nice — but some wear vizor caps. 

The entire first scene is cut, so that the first lines are “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death.” This is a careful choice and it defines the play as a domestic tragedy. 

But, inevitably, I have disagreements with Mr. Leon’s cuts. Ophelia’s wonderful speech “What a noble mind is here overthrown” is drastically cut; I miss those wonderful lines about “th’ observed of all observers.” And there are many other familiar lines that we miss. 

And where is Fortinbras? Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is avenging the death of his father — wherever we look in this incredible play, the same thing its happening. Mr. Leon has paid a price to make this a family drama.

As Hamlet, Ato Blankson-Wood has strong moments in the pitch of emotion, but he seems not to have decided precisely who his Hamlet is, and sometimes looks lost. As Laertes, Nick Rehberger, as well, is interesting but hasn’t fully defined his choices. 

The great strengths of this production are the other principals. Daniel Pearce gives us a fascinating, creative interpretation of Polonius, making him simultaneously recognizable and unique. As Ophelia, Solea Pfeiffer is superb — intelligent and mature. In the Play Scene her conversation with Hamlet is a sparring. Even her madness is that of a grown woman who was once confident — not the victim personality that actresses so often play Ophelia to be.

John Douglas Thompson as Claudius and Lorraine Toussaint as Gertrude give tremendous, stunning performances. In his “My offence is rank —  it smells to heaven” speech, Mr. Thompson expresses monumental emotions, showing us such depth of character that we almost sympathize with Claudius (Shakespeare has such contempt for him that no character speaks his name). 

And Ms. Toussaint gives a bravura performance as Gertrude. Shakespeare hasn’t been entirely frank with us regarding Gertrude; we never get to see her inner life as well as the other principals. But in the Closet Scene Ms. Toussaint expresses a depth of character that’s scary. What “black and grained spots” does she see? When Claudius tells her not to drink the poisoned cup meant for Hamlet she delivers her crucial line — “I will, my Lord” — with a willfulness that reveals why she’s behaved with such matrimonial abandon.

When Hamlet returns from his aborted trip to England he must be profoundly changed. Being captured by pirates — an unlikely, chance event — has a profound effect on him. He has, after all, committed murderer. Shakespeare is expressing the mystery by hiding it from us, but directors gloss over this strange piece of dramatic action. This production, like nearly all I’ve seen, doesn’t acknowledge that something intense has happened to the young man.

Of all plays, Hamlet is the last to need directorial embellishment. Sometimes Mr. Leon’s choices give this production an interesting texture and sometimes they obscure the text. At any rate — Congratulations to The Public. Shakespeare in the Park — because it’s Shakespeare in the park — is never less than wonderful.

— Steve Capra

June 2023

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