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A CurtainUp Review

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
-- Act III, scene 3
Unless something changes, it appears that Hamlet will be my last review of 1999 and, although I am not eager to participate in the hype, there's something irresistibly poetic about ending the millennium with the play that, by most accounts, is its richest. Who, if forced to carry but one play across the threshold into the 21st Century, would dare to leave this one behind? 

As bountiful as Shakespeare's text is, this production is memorable not for giving voice to those words, but for Andrei Serban's directorial tinkering. Although there is some shuffling and splicing of scenes, there's less cutting here than is often the case; yet many a notion is missed, most often a consequence of diversion or deëmphasis, rather than excision. 

The initial philosophical thrust of Serban's staging seems to be an unconventional take to a fairly standard idea: a forced confrontation with illusions, underscored here by recurring circus motifs. When we first see Elsinore, the battlements are consumed by fog. But Serban makes it clear this is no act of nature: a stage hand walks around with a smoke machine instantly creating this atmosphere. Three specters appear, one dressed in armor, the other two in tulle, one white and one blood red. Is one of these Hamlet's father? Are the other two expressions of his life and death? Or do the soldiers (Andrew Garman and Adam Greer) and Horatio (Christian Camargo) each see images of their own composition? A fourth image of the ghost (Colm Feore) will soon reveal itself to Hamlet (Liev Schrieber). 

It's a shot across the bow for anyone suffering from delusions of reality but, oddly, it's not a concept that Serban feels compelled to flesh out. As a bookend of sorts, the play ends with two people (one male, one female) playing and reciting the lines of Fortinbras. If there is a connection (or even a meaning, for that matter), it escapes me. 

Much of the production, in fact, seems to lack concept. It comes off as a hodgepodge of ideas, more often sophomoric than clever,  not grounded in any particular intelligence, just a diffuse ad-hoc eclecticism: Hamlet in a bloody butcher's apron with a meaty bone in his hand after he disposes of a Polonius (Richard Libertini) who carries around a tape recorder into which he dictates; an acrobatic bare-chested male Player Queen (Francis Jue) suspended from wires a la Cirque du Soliel, a stunt repeated when the same actor plays Osric during the fight scene in Act V (for both of which the credit needs to go to Flying by Foy); a pig's mask that seems like a stray prop from A Midsummer Night's Dream; for the clown dialogue in the famous grave scene, the gravedigger (George Morfogen), in an explicitly labeled clown costume, as a ventriloquist, with a skull as his dummy, while a juggler performs behind him; Hamlet as Ophelia's (Lynn Collins) puppeteer. 

The sum of these parts is intellectual anemia. Although it has been directed energetically and is paced in such a way that it remains interesting to watch, this Hamlet seems like a pageant rather than the greatest dramatic work of a millennium. There are exceptions. The final scene of Act I, for instance, in which Hamlet communes with his father's Ghost, is stunning: Hamlet's oversized shadow shrinks as he follows his forebear into the ether; a depiction of what the Ghost relates plays out in silhouette behind a scrim as it is told. 

What's most tragic in this rendering is how the actors, on whom Serban seems to have wasted very little attention, suffer. This, too, is not novel. Here's what Frank Rich, reviewing The Public's 1986 Hamlet in the New York Times, said about Kevin Kline, as the title character: 
That Mr. Kline has what it takes to be a great Hamlet is beyond question--but that is not the question this production raises. One must instead ask why this star, having decided to pour himself unsparingly into the most demanding role in our literature, should be repaid for his efforts by having his performance thrown to the wolves...
Mr. Schreiber is no-less-able. His reading of Hamlet is both thoughtful and clear, and when he is alone -- least influenced by his director's carnival -- he shines. His is an unaffected yet visceral and expansive Hamlet, but not one that loses touch with Shakespeare's poetry. It's a more notable accomplishment than one might think: his director, too, has thrown him to the wolves, concocting some sort of visual interference for every major speech. A similar predicament confronts Colm Feore, on firm footing even as his Claudius affects the sort of mindless hyperactivity to which Serban inexplicably directs him. 

Hamlet depends on powerful forces, many of which reside in the title character's head. The path here is to dissipate that energy, and replace it with flash. Hamlet's revulsion at the sight of his mother's hideously premature remarriage could almost go unnoticed in the midst of the celebration Serban seems far more interested in staging. Diane Venora, who plays Gertrude, seems constantly wrestling with ghosts of her own past, having previously played both Hamlet and Ophelia on The Public's stage. Her pairing with Schreiber in the bedroom scene is the coldest, most attenuated and least integrated I have ever seen. Untethered actors -- even good ones -- when confronted with a parade of disruptions fail more than they succeed. 

The remainder of the cast is, for one reason or another, more ineffectual than anything else. Horatio (Christian Camargo) is reduced to almost no significance; Laertes (Hamish Linklater) is fine, but certainly not memorable, while his father is neither. Then there is Ophelia, performed in a manner that could most favorably be called transparent. Some of these actors I respect from their previous work; I feel comfortable describing them as victims. Of the others, I'm left only with a first impression, and unfortunately it's not a good one. 
Even much of the design work on display is disappointing. John Coyne's sets consist almost entirely of pedestrian backdrops, one of the most popular of which has a walkway/balcony notched out across its top and various doors of all sizes randomly strewn across its face. (The smallest of these doors figures prominently in one of the play's other inchoate themes: the snooping that seems endemic in this Elsinore.) There are also several trapdoors and, after the intermission, a large sandbox the most significant effect of which is to give several stage hands a nasty clean-up job, and to make sure the already-abused best takes long showers before heading home. 

Marina Draghici should probably not be faulted for costumes that give effect to Serban's flawed vision; they are otherwise fine. And while Michael Chybowski has produced some exceptionally nice lighting effects onstage, whoever is responsible for the high-intensity outdoor halogen lights trained on the audience periodically (I'm guessing this is supposed to be some fourth-wall-breaking invention that doesn't work) should be forced to stare into one of them for a few hours as punishment. 
No, this Hamlet will not to heaven go. 
CurtainUp's review of Richard Schechner's Hamlet 
by William Shakespeare 

Directed by Andrei Serban  
Starring Liev Schreiber with David Wilson Barnes, Christian Camargo, Justin Campbell, Lynn Collins, Colm Feore, Dion Flynn, Jonathan Fried, Andrew Garman, Adam Greer, Marc Gwinn, Frances Jue, Richard Libertini, Hamish Linklater, George Morfogen, Robert Alexander Owens, Jeremy Shamos, Wendy Rich Stetson, Diane Venora and Robin Weigert 
Set Design: John Coyne 
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski 
Costume Design: Marina Draghici 
Sound Design:  Donald DiNicola and Obadiah Eaves 
Original Music by Elizabeth Swados 
Running time:  3 hours, 35 minutes with 1 intermission (2 hours and 10 minutes into the show) 
Public Theater Website:  
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (212) 239-6200 
Opened December 19, 1999 Closes January 9, 2000 
Reviewed by Les Gutman 12/20/1999 based on a 12/18/1999 performance. 
©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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