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A CurtainUp Review

there are as many Hamlets as there are melancholics. — Oscar Wilde
Oscar Isaac (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Oscar Wilde's quip about there being as many Hamlets as melancholics is still true. And given the contemporary trend to not just revive but re-interpret popular classics, there nowadays are as many directors determined to put their very own stamp on the Bard's masterpiece as there are actors eager to play the melancholy prince.

The thirty Hamlets reviewed at Curtainup since our 1996 launch, have seen some of the contemporary theater's most cutting edge directors take a whack at diddling with the time and location, the makeup and size of the cast to make yet another Hamlet more relevant and worth seeing. Thus we've seen famous and not so famous Hamlets, many trim and handsome, but also a few decidedly against physical type (the roly poly Simon Russell Beale domes to mind). Casting choices overall have more and more championed diversity. (See our links to all our reviews here ).

Clearly the time is ripe for Sam Gold to apply his penchant for simple, everyday staging and often controversial fillips to Hamlet. I've very much liked Gold's direction of new work like Annie Baker's plays and the ground breaking musical Fun Home . I never bought into his controversial casting of Laura in his revival of The Glass Menagerie, but he did win me over with his take on Othello . What initially struck me as less than ideal in that production, pretty much faded in the light of Gold's more compelling directorial touches as well as the standout cast Gold assembled. The same is true of much but hardly all of the Hamlet now at the Public's Anspacher Theater.

Like Othello, the entire first act is in the dark; that is, once all the actors enter, and help the old King Hamlet, shirtless so we can see a tattoo on his left arm, onto a long folding table covered with wildflowers at the center of the red carpeted playing area. The fifteen or twenty minutes of dialogue from unseen actors, seems to go on forever — pretty confusingly so, especially for anyone not familiar with the play. Those in the know will realize that the speakers are at first the sentinels Bernardo and Francisco and then Horatio and Marcellus (all visible and listed in programs of productions with larger casts).

When the lights finally go we see in retrospect how that opening is integral to Gold's deconstructionist plan for having that central playing area the place where all the dead people will ultimately end up (no wonder he has Hamlet begin his famous quandary about committing suicide on that table, as if test-driving it as his coffin).

Though things become clearer after that first blackout act and some of the very Gold-esque business that follows is interesting but hardly qualifies this at once real and surreal production as a Hamlet for the Ages. There's nothing all that new about the use of a 9-actor ensemble and modern setting and Gold is fairly true to the text, and not the first to cut Fortinbras, and with it the theme of a kingdom under siege. Except for lines pertaining to Fortinbras, all the famous quotes are delivered over the course of what adds up to almost four hours if you count the two intermissions.

Clearly, while Gold is appealing to younger, less devoted to Shakespeare audiences, he's not catering to short attention spans here. This is a long "sit." Gold does indeed dish up plenty of decidedly newfangled ideas — some intriguing, others, far less so.

The director's penchant for replacing all the trappings of a more fully furnished stage has its lowlights and highlights. His short on props kingdom features an upstage bathroom. Having that occasionally opened room's toilet materialize as a metaphor for the ill-begotten throne is witty if rather smart-alecky and vulgar. On the other hand the use of that bathroom's hand shower helps to make Ophelia's surrealistic mad scene and its aftermath wildly original and watchable.

While using a modern setting and costumes has become a customary way to make this Elizabethan tale of family and seat of power mayhem more timely, Gold, with the help of costume designer Kaye Voyce, has gone all out for an easy to identify with "now" look.

Hamlet and Ophelia could have stepped onto the Anspacher Stage right out of the subway down Lafayette Street. Polonius and Claudius (the latter when he's not the dead king's ghost) are dressed like corporate executives. Gertrude is the epitome of a fashionable one per center's wife at a cocktail party in a very attractive pants outfit.

Naturally, even the best and most interesting director's interpretation is only as good as the actors presenting them. Fortunately, this cast does very well indeed, even with Gold's more pretentious and controversial ideas.

The big draw for younger as well as older audiences is Oscar Isaac. He's popular with film and TV viewers, but has also proved his stage chops in Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona as well as a number of contemporary plays. He delivers his lines naturally and with gratifying clarity, exhibits terrific agility and his career stint as a singer stands him in good stead. Too bad Mr. Gold has found it necessary to intensify Hamlet's down-to-earth appearance by frequently keeping him in his undershorts which is silly and unnecessary.

Gayle Rankin initially seems too physically robust for Ophelia, which is underscored by her very street-smart outfit. But what seems a case of miscasting initially all clicks in when she goes bi-polar à la Sam Gold.

I've always found Polonius to be my favorite character and Peter Friedman, a seasoned thespian but usually in modern plays, is no exception. He's impressive as Ophelia's and Laertes' doomed father and the quite different character Mr. Gold, at his most effective, arranges for him to become.

Keegan-Michael Key, best known for the Emmy Award winning Key & Peele, is another standout as Horatio. He also deftly and amusingly breaks the fourth wall to handle the introductory remarks usually made by a company's artistic director.

Charlayne Woodard is an aptly regal Gertrude and Anatol Yusef is fine as Laertes. Having a female Rosencrantz (Roberta Colindrez) works quite well, as does having the pair much more present than usual. However it does nothing to make either her or Guildenstern (Matthew Saldivar) as funny as Hamlet-watchers might expect.

While I was most taken by that surreal mad scene and its postscript, I found myself distracted with wondering how in the world the stage hands manage to repeatedly clean up the muddy mess that scene creates. Anyway, good as Mr. Isaac and his colleagues are, and daringly different as some of Mr. Gold's staging is, for me the consistently flawless highlight of this production was provided by cellist Ernest Reijseger. His subtle musical punctuation, whether whether on the cello or an upstage harpsichord, never drowns out the dialogue. In one quite stunning interlude, ensemble members pick up some of that harpsichord's pipes and play them like flutes.

To decide whether Mr. Gold's production is a form of directorial madness or clever as clever can be inventiveness, you'll have to see this Hamlet for yourself.

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Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Gold
Cast: Roberta Colindrez (Rosencrantz); Ritchie Coster (Claudius); Peter Friedman (Polonius); Oscar Isaac (Hamlet); Keegan-Michael Key (Horatio); Gayle Rankin (Ophelia); Matthew Saldívar (Guildenstern); Charlayne Woodard (Gertrude); and Anatol Yusef (Laertes)
Scenic Design by David Zinn
Costume Design by Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design by Mark Barton
Sound Design by Bray Poor
Musical Direction, Composition and Performance by cellist Ernst Reijseger
Music Coordinator: Michael Aarons
Fight Consultant: Thomas Schall
Fencing Master: Soren Thompson
Voice and Speech Coach: Andrew Wade
Dramaturg: Michael Sexton
Stage Manager: kevin Bertolacci
Running Time: Approximately 3 and 1/2 hours with two intermissions
Public's Anspacher Theater 420 Lafayette Street
From 6/20; opening 7/13/17; closing 9/03/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/09 press matinee

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