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A CurtainUp Review

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!


Michael Cumpsty

Michael Cumpsty
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It seems to have become the fashion for directors to tinker with the opening scene of Hamlet. Brian Kulick jumps on the bandwagon by inverting audience and actors. Upon entering the theater, the audience is directed onto the stage -- surrounded by four blank white walls. The encounter of the castle guard with Horatio and Marcellus occurs in the seats; the flash-lighted chase after the Ghost of Hamlet's father finds the actors racing among the audience-crowd. It's a terrific way of getting the audience engaged in the action of the play; the challenge is to keep it there. The scene over, the play is interrupted as the audience takes its seats. Unfortunately, Kulick's production never regains the same level of engagement.

The upstage white wall, which turns out to be made of paper on Mark Wendland's bare-bones set, and the white tile floor onto which a red rug has been placed, become a canvas onto which a graffiti artist named Hamlet will draw (with crayon and spray paint). Knives will cut openings and punch holes in the wall at appropriate times and, later, both wall and floor will get splattered with bountiful quantities of blood. Regrettably, the emotional fabric of the play never gets so fully adorned.

Indeed, Kulick spends so much of his two and a half hour Hamlet on gimmicks and visual moments, the development of a psychologically compelling story suffers. It's a sad day when Hamlet, of all plays, does not grip us.

Michael Cumpsty is a fine actor, and clearly has the chops to take on this mammoth role. Much has been made of his age -- he is a firmly middle-aged Hamlet -- but it matters not; he is convincing as the son of his father (Jon DeVries). Much has also been made of Hamlet's mental state; here, the man is clearly in control of his actions, though this translates at times into a less moody Dane than we have come to expect. Cumpsty handles Hamlet's famous monologues adroitly, but this Hamlet cannot permit him to become as reflective as the text would suggest. He is especially effective, instead, when he quite violently confronts his mother (the solid Caroline Lagerfelt) in the "closet" scene. Elsewhere, his performance sometimes feels untethered, as his director has him pace broadly around the stage, ineffectually connecting with his scene partners.

Of the remaining cast, most everyone performs satisfactorily but without bringing anything especially noteworthy to their roles. That said, Herb Foster is given license to render Polonius quite comically, and he acquits the direction with aplomb. Yet he doesn't forsake the genuine feelings of this father for his offspring. Robert Dorfman, on the other hand, portrays Claudius in only two oleaginous dimensions (over-the-top and way over-the top, one might suggest), and never rises above the characterization.

Mark Wendland's set suggests some excellent ideas, though the entire production is undermined to some extent by being played in the same space without much alteration save a few pieces of furniture and props. (It doesn't help that most of these items remain on stage throughout, calling for some peculiar moments such as the gravedigger moving Claudius' dining room chairs out of his way.) Oana Botez-Ban has designed more-or-less modern costumes which rely heavily (and thoughtfully) on color-coding (the wedding party in shades of white, Hamlet arriving in black, the players in red and so on). They are much more successful in helping to tell the story. Brian Scott's lighting follows the vagueness of the set, but is otherwise good, and Jorge Muelle's sound design is quite specific if at some times a bit intrusive.

So rich is Hamlet that a good production provokes endless thinking and much to write about. It's telling that from this one, I'm not prompted to say anything more.

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by William Shakespeare
Directed by Brian Kulick
with Michael Cumpsty, Jon DeVries, Robert Dorfman, Herb Foster, Karl Kenzler, Caroline Lagerfelt, Jason Ma, Kellie Overbey and Graham Winton
Set Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Oana Botez-Ban
Lighting Design: Brian Scott
Sound Design: Jorge Muelle
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street (3/4 Avs)
Telephone (212) 279-4200
Opening November 13, 2005, closes December 11, 2005 TUES - SAT @8, SAT @2, SUN@3, no performances 11/23-4; $45-50
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 11/10/05 performance
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