Theater: Bloody But Not Equal

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The surprises for the audience in Hamlet—the fun of revisiting a high school homework assignment—come from the choices made by directors who dare to meddle with Shakespeare’s intentions. Let’s face it, we’ve seen the tragedy so often that we’re almost conditioned to anticipate and hope for the unexpected; a Hamlet that doesn’t deviate from the standard interpretation almost doesn’t deserve to exist at this point. At least from that perspective, the Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, gets points for the shock value of his Hamlet’s unorthodox ending, which completely rewrites the basic Shakespeare text when Fortinbras guns down Horatio in cold blood. And that act of spontaneous brutality almost—but not quite—makes up for the utterly predictable three hours that precede it.

On a near-empty stage lit so brightly—and for what reason?—that it blocked out a beautiful full moon behind it, Eustis has presented a prosaic Hamlet with little poetry in its rhythms, and not nearly enough subtlety in its laughs. There’s an oddly distancing aspect of the Delacorte stage that makes it especially hard for actors to deliver nuance; it’s probably no coincidence that Kevin Kline, whose own Hamlets (he did it twice at the Public) offered brilliant understatement, never agreed to perform the role in Central Park. The casting of the melodramatic Michael Stuhlbarg (check) might have seemed perfect on paper for an outdoors production—his broad, rubbery face contorts into an almost comic-book version of a man in tears—but after a while his outsized madness grows maddeningly dull.

I’ve felt for years that the Public Theater has boxed itself into a foolhardy formula with its summer Central Park productions—the relentless casting of recognizable actors to draw attention to plays that need no such gimmickry. While in years past the NYSF has gone so far as to recruit movie icons like Denzel Washington and Michelle Pfeiffer to the Delacorte to “sell” tickets, this year Eustis downsized the effort by bringing in TV stars. The results are the same: scenery-chewing star turns by Andre (Homicide) Braugher and Sam (Law & Order) Waterston diminished the more appropriately calibrated performances by their theater-bred brethren, like David Harbour as Laertes and Jay O. Sanders in multiple roles, including the Ghost. The exception that proves the rule: the shimmering Lauren (Six Feet Under) Ambrose, who followed up her triumph as Juliet last summer with another triumph as Ophelia. But hasn’t she, by this time, earned the right to be considered a stage actor at heart?

Every moment Ambrose inhabits the stage is a gift, even to the most jaded and bored of summer audiences , but her appearances in this production don’t do enough to counterbalance the casting misfires. After 32 years away from the Central Park stage, you’d think a more cohesive cast could have been found to reward the wait. It was the Joseph Papp formula that led to this star-driven state, and no one in his wake has dared to stray from that well-worn path. This time the blame falls squarely on Eustis, who focused too much on the glib wit that Shakespeare sprinkled lightly over his text, and too little on the underlying questions that keep us mulling Hamlet’s meaning, and returning—again and again—to a classic in search of surprises. I wasn’t expecting a thousand natural shocks, but I might have preferred more than one.

Through June 29, Delacorte Theater, East Side entrance is 5th Ave. at 79th St.; West Side, Central Park West at 81st St.,; Tues.-Sun. 8, free.

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