By William Shakespeare
Directed by Oskar Eustis
Starring Lauren Ambrose, Andre Braugher, Margaret Colin, David Harbour, Jay O. Sanders, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Waterston
Delacorte Theater, Central Park
May 27 –June 29, 2008
The subtleties of Hamlet are almost impossible to register at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where free Shakespeare reigns. Oskar Eustis’s limp production merely pays lip service to the Bard’s sublime tragedy.
The main culprit here is Michael Stuhlbarg, an accomplished actor (The Pillowman, The Voysey Inheritance) who, on the basis of this Hamlet, is no tragedian. Aside from a moment of quiet repose at the top of the play, Stuhlbarg is a literal whirlwind throughout the evening. He doesn’t let one line reading go by without adding bits of unrelated mischief that underline, accentuate, and hammer the point into the ground, so that even the least attentive spectator will “get” it. He rolls his eyes, stomps his feet, and jumps around the stage like an overstimulated kid. He does everything, in fact, except create a credible interpretation of Hamlet.
During the pivotal play-within-the-play scene, for example, Stuhlbarg’s obscene gestures during Hamlet’s brief conversation with Ophelia -- already littered with naughty bits by Shakespeare – earn cheap laughs. At least Basil Twist’s puppets offer a visual imaginativeness that gives a new twist to a familiar scene.
Eustis moves his actors adroitly around David Korins’ unit set, dominated by a massive, white wall that looks more like something in East Berlin than the ramparts of Elsinore castle. This also briefly becomes the gangway of a ship that Laertes boards as he leaves for France, among other things. But the director has the performers go into the audience too often, thereby making the device less effective.
The director also takes liberties that obscure rather than illuminate the text. The bloody finale is a prime example: After the deaths of Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, and Laertes, the conquering Prince Fortinbras arrives and not only orders a hero’s farewell for Hamlet but, for good measure, shoots the only remaining main character in the head, thereby killing the lone witness to these tragic events. This willfully offbeat ending, which is certainly not in the text, makes no psychological or dramatic sense.
An ensemble of actors mostly out of their depth comprises the large cast. David Harbour exaggerates Laertes' reactions to his father Polonius’ foolish behavior for crude comic effect, while Sam Waterston gives a far too broad portrayal of Polonius. As Ophelia, Lauren Ambrose is game but unable to fashion a real character out of her earnest line readings. As a result, her mad scene is curiously unmoving.
Margaret Colin’s Gertrude looks regal even in the unflattering costumes she has been given, but this lively, usually interesting actress cannot handle Shakespeare’s poetry. Even Gertrude’s heart-rending utterance after Ophelia’s suicide falls flat. As Claudius, Andre Braugher bellows his lines, offering bombast rather than subtlety.
Jay O. Sanders comes off best in a trio of roles -- the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, the Player King, and the Gravedigger -- as he balances dramatic dignity with sure comedic instincts. Too bad Sanders is too old to take a credible stab at the sweet prince. Maybe there’s a King Lear in his future?