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A CurtainUp Review

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

— Horatio
Peter Sarsgaard as Hamlet
Hamlet without a Ghost? Yes, Austin Pendleton has plucked out the spirit of Old Hamlet from the dramatis personae in his new mounting of the great revenge tragedy at the Classic Stage Company. This staging, unconventional as it is, is right on the money in one sure-fire way: it allows you to center more on the melancholy Prince, splendidly incarnated here by Peter Sarsgaard with New York edge.

Pendleton is no stranger at the CSC, having helmed several Chekhov productions that garnered him accolades and an Obie Award. Now he's back with Shakespeare's most celebrated play which he knows like the back of his hand, having acted in it twice (as the eponymous character and Claudius).

Though a few things are out of joint, this Hamlet has Pendleton's fingerprints, and inventiveness, clearly pressed onto it. I suspect that his omission of a visible Ghost may be to relocate it in the protagonist's mind. In fact, the renowned scholar Marjorie Garber in her book Dream in Shakespeare remarked that all the personas in the play can actually be construed as aspects of Hamlet's many-sided character. And whether you agree with this cerebral conceit or not, Pendleton has blocked the scenes so Sarsgaard's Hamlet is thrust prominently into the limelight, with the other characters often seen sitting or standing in a sort of twilight or at one of the two bars, sipping drinks. Moreover, when Sarsgaard isn't speaking one of the great monologues or set pieces, he often appears to be in a dream state or quietly brooding on an aisle or on one of the couches surrounding the central setting.

The main shortcoming here is that Penelope Allen's Gertrude, and Harris Yulin's Claudius generate little electricity between them. These talented veterans of stage and film are surprisingly lackluster as the royal newly-weds, oddly standing apart from each other in most scenes, with little display of affection exchanged.

Austin Jones is competent as Horatio but fails to deliver the emotional urgency that needs to go along with the character. True, Horatio is supposed to be grounded, since he embodies the voice of reason in the play's world. But he's also Hamlet's confidante and the dying Prince entrusts Horatio with narrating his tragic tale to the world-at-large. Jones, in any case, could ratchet up his emotional temperature a whiff to more fully realize his complex character.

Happily, there are several standouts in the cast. Stephen Spinella rises to all his dramatic moments. His wordy Polonius. is the personification of a politically-correct nobleman serving in Claudius' court, right down to his gloves and wise saws. Lisa Joyce as his daughter Ophelia is equally well-cast. She projects the necessary blush of innocence early on and then convincingly goes insane as a loon in her famous mad scenes. I've seen wilder Ophelias on stage but few better. Glenn Fitzgerald also delivers as Laertes — especially when he returns to Elsinore in utter fury and hell-bent on revenge after learning of his father's murder .

The real ace, however, is Sarsgaard. He speaks the speech, if not always trippingly on the tongue, in a regular Joe manner. And though much can be said for the high-flown rhetoric heard in British productions, Sarsgaard comes across as unaffected and all-American here. He also injects pauses into his speech, as if newly-minting Shakespeare's familiar monologues and verse.

While Walt Spangler achieves a clean urbane look with his modern furniture and black-and-white design, he overreaches with the large canopy, topped with pink and white flowers, arching over the performing area. It works fine in the opening scene for Gertrude and Claudius' wedding reception but seems wrong as the play proceeds and takes on tragic tones.

Justin Townsend's chiaroscuro lighting is well-done. It has a natural glow in most scenes but neatly amps up its theatricality for the play-within-the-play scene ("The Mousetrap"). Constance Hoffman's range of chic and practical contemporary costumes, and all the characters are decked out according to their particular station in Elsinore.

Say what you will, Pendleton's Hamlet sans Ghost is something new under the sun. Although it raises more questions than it answers, isn't that why the play has intrigued so many people for over four centuries?

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard a (Hamlet), Penelope Allen (Gertrude), Jim Broaddus (Player King/others), Glenn Fitzgerald (Laertes), Austin Jones (Horatio), Lisa Joyce (Ophelia), Scott Parkinson (Rosencrantz/others), Daniel Morgan Shelley (Guildenstern/others), Stephen Spinella (Polonius) and Harris Yulin (Claudius)
Scenic design by Walter Spangler
Lighting Justin Townsend
Original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery
Costumes: Constance Hoffman
Wig and hair design: Dave Bova Stage Manager: Timothy R. Semon
Running Time: 3 hours 10 minutes, 1 intermission
Classic Stage 136 East 13th Street
From 3/27/15; opening 4/15/15; closing 5/10/15
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at Sunday March 12th press preview
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