Peter Sarsgaard in the CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY production of HAMLET.  Photo by Carol Rosegg

Peter Sarsgaard in the CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY production of HAMLET. Photo by Carol Rosegg

by George Tynan Crowley

There are a multitude of blessings in this HAMLET. Director Austin Pendleton can be counted on that his actors speak in measured, real American-speak, finding realism in moment-to-moment truth while allowing the poetic images to resonate in time: Scott Parkinson’s beautifully spoken, quicksilver Rosencrantz, Glenn Fitzgerald’s deeply felt Laertes, Harris Yulin’s measured, cautiously conservative King, and Jim Broaduss’ easeful, authoritative work in a number of roles are all to be commended. The design is beautiful and stylish, with its sombre blacks and greys and accents of white, all overhung by a magnificently celebratory bower of white blossoms. Upstage, an ever-present wedding cake (the play starts with the new marriage of Hamlet’s mother, of course, which precipitates all the commotion) is very right, reminding us of the quick fade of happiness. This is, after all, a play about death. And madness. And “no mo’ marriages.” Many of the choices, including the sonorous, whispering sound-scape reek of elegant thoughtfulness on the director’s part.

Which brings us to the story and to Hamlet, as played by Peter Sarsgaard. Pendleton has taken a big risk in deciding to eliminate the character of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and, though his appearance is signaled by the reactions and lines (maintained) of those who see him, the entire scene of Hamlet’s private conference with the Ghost is excised. All well and good, and to the purpose of putting the audience in the position of the supporting characters in the play, you might say. But we don’t know what’s bugging Hamlet; we haven’t been made privy to the secret at the heart of his mystery, and the play suffers thereby. In fact, if you don’t know the plot going in, you won’t know what’s going on until the play-within-the-play, if you can even figure it out then. Bad mistake, even if a bold, seeming worthy dramaturgical risk. (Would that it will be changed by opening: Broaduss would give us a magnificent Hamlet Senior.)

Sarsgaard would’ve been better served if the ghost’s story had been included. As it is, this Prince Hamlet’s first act (Pendleton divides the play in half) is under wraps. Sarsgaard’s characteristic monotone (one might even say, stoner) way of speaking, which can be effective when we can intuit the smothered passion underneath, leaves him not only isolated from the characters in the play but from his all-important connection to the audience. And, so too, the character’s mordant wit usually falls flat (though the sure-fire prose scene with his two school-friends is fine). It’s too bad. Because, in this version’s second act, when he lets loose the tidal wave of passion which has been damped down, in the famously pivotal “closet” scene with his mother the Queen, he carries us with him from then on, pretty much to the end of the play. Tears course easily down this actor’s face, his speeches suddenly run like raging torrents, and his hitherto flat emotional landscape makes sense. And then, in the next scene, having witnessed this man’s pain, we are all the more startled by the mute-button that comes back on, effectively, in the talk about Polonius’ body. His muffled ennui makes sense after all. But it’s a little late when it comes.

Penelope Allen’s Queen is remarkable. She seems to be merely stately and beautifully spoken for the early part of the play, with the old-school cadences and style that Marian Seldes, as well, used to memorably bring to her work. But her closet scene (played simply on a bare stage with only two chairs) wherein Hamlet forces her to look into her very soul, is amazing. It makes the entire play worth seeing. Besides, Allen and director Pendleton have carefully crafted the Queen’s decision to estrange herself from the King thereafter, a correct choice, in my estimation, which not every productions sees fit to delineate. In this production, Pendleton even chooses to include her in the scene where Hamlet tells Horatio what happened in England, and, though it’s probably wrong, in this production it works. We definitely love this Queen Gertrude.

The Ophelia (Lisa Joyce) is very good, beautifully cast physically in the traditional sense of a blonde, Dresden nymphet. Her back is to us for much of her nunnery scene, and the director does not let Hamlet discover her father’s concealment in the scene itself (a mistake, I think, but a time-honored one), but her outbreak into madness is riveting, heart-breaking, intelligently serves the text/songs, and is, aside from the closet scene, the real emotional highlight of the production. She seems possessed by spirits, and it’s ravishing to watch. (Detail: no real flowers or prop-substitutes in the mad scene; just imagined, and it works fine.)

A lot of Pendleton’s choices work, especially the King’s opening scene, which is played as a private state gathering just after a wedding that looks like a modern catered event, at a circular, white-draped dining table. Harris Yulin shows us a monarch that seems eminently trustworthy. Unfortunately, because we don’t get the ghost’s side of the story, this facade is overturned way too late. And Pendleton has a lot of doubling and tripling of roles (eg., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the players with only a slight switch of attire—Were they in Wittenberg’s Triangle Club?). This is really confusing if you don’t know the storyline. The convention is even more confusing because Pendleton has a lot of the characters sitting in on scenes on the sidelines for no earthly reason, and the lighting doesn’t especially help us know who’s there and not there. It’s not clear if they’re ghosts (sometimes, arbitrarily, they are ghosts who’ve returned), or if they are meant to be their own unconscious awarenesses, or simply nice window-dressing, or actors watching the proceedings (a la Bergman’s NORA). It adds to the confusion of the plot’s proceedings, within which the cutting of the ghost’s pivotal information is the most egregious example. The other notable cuts are the “How all occasions” soliloquy and the specifics of the King’s plot with Laertes about the foils (this has an interesting impact on the play’s fatal ending, and it avoids our getting ahead of the story, but it doesn’t really work, nor does the soft-pedaling of the final revenge moment, though it’s an interesting try). That said, this is worth seeing (even if you’ll need to explain certain plot elements if you bring a Hamlet-virgin). I’ve never been as (rightly) frightened by the first line, and, by dint of staging, lighting and vocal attack, this one does that; I’ve never been as awestruck by the closet scene; I’ve never been as alive to the depth of Laertes’ grief nor his decided virtue and his threat to the monarchs; and I was very impressed with the glimpses into what could have been a break-out modern Hamlet, pathologically diffident and shut-down to the point of invisibility (and, yes, sometimes, at this performance, inaudibility) in the beginning, and a force of nature in certain, later moments when he let fly.

Two final notes: Steven Spinella seems still to be struggling to ride the brilliantly rhythmic comedy in the writing of Polonius while providing ballast for a characterization of a good father and solid adviser. He’s not yet able to assimilate both, as Hume Cronyn did opposite Burton, and, though he makes a case for the speech to Laertes being truly, necessarily cautionary in a treacherous world, it just doesn’t all come together. I was left thinking about his customarily strangulated voice and wondering why he doesn’t really let himself be funny. Besides, the staging in the closet scene for his exit is terrible, though clearly intentional. There’s no question that director Pendleton is a wonderful and wonderfully unique actor (his Richard III was quirkily well-grounded, his Tusenbach was perfection, and the memory of his historic Motel the tailor in the original “Fiddler on the Roof” is to be treasured), his reputation as a brilliant acting teacher is well-known, and his work with actors, his trust of them, may be unparalleled (from “Say Goodnight, Gracie” on). Why he let a few sophomoric dramaturgical choices get in the way of this production fulfilling its promise is to be lamented. But we do get some of the essentials in the greatest play in the known universe, and I guarantee, if you stay through intermission, you will be very very moved.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Directed by Austin Pendleton
With: Penelope Allen (Queen); Jim Broaduss (Player King, Barnardo, etc.); Glenn Fitzgerald (Laertes); Austin Jones (Horatio): Lisa Joyce (Ophelia); Scott Parkinson (Rosencrantz, Player Queen, Gravedigger, etc.); Peter Sarsgaard (Hamlet): Daniel Morgan Shelley (Guildenstern, Lucianus, Fortinbras, etc.); Stephen Spinella (Polonius); Harris Yulin (King):

Scenic Design: Walter Spangler; Costume Design: Constance Huffman; Lighting Design: Justin Townsend; Original Music and Sound Design: Ryan Rumery/Scapesound; Casting: Callieri Casting

At Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, Through Sunday May 10; tickets at or 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111; Running time: 3 hours and 10 minutes with one 10-minute intermission