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Review: This ‘Hamlet’ Under the Stars Is No Walk in the Park


For those who remember the 2019 Shakespeare in the Park production of “Much Ado About Nothing” — as I do, fondly — the sight that awaits them at this summer’s “Hamlet” in the same location is disturbing.

Entering the Delacorte Theater, you are immediately faced with what looks like a copy of the earlier show’s set, which depicted the handsome grounds of a grand home in a Black suburb of Atlanta. But now it is utterly ruined. The facade is atilt, the S.U.V. tipped nose-first in a puddle, the Stacey Abrams for President banner torn down and in tatters. The flagpole bearing the Stars and Stripes sticks out of the ground at a precipitous angle, like a javelin that made a bad landing.

For the director Kenny Leon and the scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, both returning for this “Hamlet” — the Public Theater’s fifth in the park since 1964 and 13th overall — it’s a coup de théâtre, if an odd one. However smartly the setting provokes a shiver of dread in those who recognize it, and dread is certainly apt for a play in which nine of the main characters die, it can only produce a shrug from anyone else. An approach that had been designed to welcome audiences to a new way of looking at Shakespeare in 2019 now seems destined to exclude them.

I’m afraid the same holds for the production overall: It is full of insight and echoes for those already in the know, and features lovely songs (by Jason Michael Webb) and a few fine performances that anyone can enjoy. (Ato Blankson-Wood brings a vivid anger to the title role.) But this “Hamlet” has been placed in a frame that doesn’t match what the production actually delivers, leaving me glad to have seen it but wishing for something more congruent.

Part of the problem is that the frame — both Black and military as in Leon’s “Much Ado” — is so prominent at the start and irrelevant thereafter. Instead of beginning the play as written, with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Leon stages his funeral as a prologue, with Marine Corps pallbearers, a praise team singing settings of Bible verses and Ophelia (Solea Pfeiffer) channeling Beyoncé.

Only after this welcoming opening do we get the awful scenes in which the dead king, appearing to Hamlet, urges revenge on the brother who murdered him and then married his wife. As his giant funeral portrait comes to life through psychedelic special effects, Hamlet confusingly lip-syncs his beyond-the-grave voice, provided by Samuel L. Jackson in Darth Vader mode.

But don’t be misled by that martial tone, any more than by the set, the Marines and the military cut of Jessica Jahn’s costumes for the men. (For the women they are colorful and gorgeous.) The war story they seem to promise is not in fact told in this production, as almost all the material concerning Denmark’s beef with Norway, and the consequent need to assure the royal succession, has been cut.

Well, something had to be. Uncut, “Hamlet,” the longest of Shakespeare’s plays, would likely run more than four hours without an intermission; here it’s two hours and 45 minutes with one. How different directors make the trims is, in effect, their interpretation. Is the play a dysfunctional family melodrama? A moral inquiry into suicide and murder? A satire of royal courts and courtiers? All are in there.

Leon focuses on the interior drama of Hamlet himself, inevitable when you cherry-pick the famous soliloquies. Blankson-Wood delivers them well, if not yet with the easeful expression that turns them into free-flowing thoughts-as-actions instead of words, words, words to be worked on.

Still, because the soliloquies follow each other so closely, giving the staging the herky-jerky feeling of a musical without enough book, we get a clear sense of his Hamlet as someone whose interiority and sullenness precede the excuse of his father’s murder. You are not surprised when he turns Bad Boyfriend on Ophelia after (accidentally) killing her father. Ophelia herself is hoist with the same petard. Her descent into insanity, never clearly delineated in the text, is even more sudden with the cuts taken.

Something similar happens to many of the other characters, like the interchangeably bro-y Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who make a first impression then all but disappear. The Players are similarly reduced, their version of “The Mousetrap,” with which Hamlet intends to “catch the conscience of the king” now a mime show. And Horatio barely seems to show up in the first place, even though he’s the character Shakespeare leaves standing at the end: enjoined, as Hamlet says dying, to “tell my story.”

If that story is a bit foggy in this production, others are absolutely clear. As Claudius, John Douglas Thompson brings his usual grave authority to bear but also a fascinating note of insecurity that helps explain the character’s ruthlessness. Daniel Pearce makes of Polonius a hilariously pedantic desk jockey and bad idea bear. (The downside: You don’t mind when he gets knifed.) In Nick Rehberger’s rendering of Laertes, the character’s grief, fury and forgiveness all ring true, even though, as cut, they are nearly simultaneous.

And Lorraine Toussaint is an exceptionally subtle, emotionally intelligent Gertrude, grieving her husband’s death but alert to the necessity of loving his killer. For me, she is the center of this production’s tragedy, giving fullest expression to Claudius’s observation that “When sorrows come, they come not single spies,/But in battalions.”

That’s an unusual path to cut through the play, but having seen it so many times, I’m happy to go for a ride on its less-traveled roads. Throughout this production I heard arresting poetry I’d somehow missed before (“a pair of reechy kisses”) and saw old ideas revivified by bright new details. (When Polonius sends Laertes off with his tired advice, he also slips him an N95 mask, as other fathers might slip their child condoms.)

Yet I worried that those less familiar with “Hamlet,” let alone those more invested in a traditional rendition, would be left unanchored on its heaving sea of meaning. Though performed, and often well, under the open sky of Central Park, its thoughts (as Claudius says) “never to heaven go.” They’re atilt like the house, and, like that javelin, too strangely angled.

Through Aug. 6 at the Delacorte Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.


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