Review by Kathleen Campion

Hamlet at the Public Theater; Oscar Isaac; Photo Credit Carol Rosegg

Bottom line?  Just get tickets for Hamlet.  It’s a brilliant contemporary take on this classic, with a genuine star in the lead and a genius directing.  If you had the good sense or good luck to see director Sam Gold’s muscular Othello last season, you know what I mean.

Oscar Isaac is riveting in the title role — and not just because he spends an inordinate amount of time in his underwear displaying distracting flanks (attention: Calvin Klein marketing).  He inhabits  and invigorates the troubled young prince; he talks and talks and talks and often makes new, lines that can carry a shopworn familiarity:  “To be, or not to be…,” “Frailty, thy name is woman…,”…and more.

Polonius is, of course, written as a fool.  His lines are ponderous; his stratagems, absurd, his obsequiousness, odious.  Still, the durable and delightful Peter Friedman manages to bring so much more to the part.  For example, he conjures an absurd authority while seated on a toilet with trousers at his ankles.  Gold gives Friedman a lot of room.  I’ve never seen Polonius played more engagingly.

Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy — and certainly his longest — but in this version, tragic or not, we laugh a lot.  Gravediggers playing with skulls?  Grim, to be sure, but genuine fun in this go ‘round.  That one of the skulls in play is that of Yorick, one of the king’s jesters, is not usually played for comedy.  But, in the Public’s version,  “I knew him, Horatio”  is a laugh line. Go figure.

Charlayne Woodard manages to make her Gertrude both desirable and opaque; that is, she does as much as can be done with Gertrude.  It is not easy playing ambiguity.

This production fields the noisiest Ophelia ever.  Gayle Rankin’s version is boisterous and turbulent — no virginal shrinking violet here.  She plays her madness with enormous brio.  Some choices for her are delightful like the inference that she stress-eats; some, not so much, as when she drags a garden hose to her drowning death.  Interesting perhaps, but distracting.

Ritchie Coster plays both Claudius, the usurper king as well as the ghost of his dispatched brother, Hamlet’s father.  Coster is an actor playing a king playing a king, by which I mean he is, by definition, given to a lot of posturing.  His physicality is dominant.  He swaggers and overwhelms smaller players; he is very handsy with his purloined wife.  And then, as the plot thickens, he shrinks.

Coster is one of a lot of bald men who work in this show.  Even the estimable one-man-band, Ernst Reijseger, is bald.  What’s more, because everyone plays multiple roles, the bald quotient is exponentially high.   Bald can be very attractive, but it is rare that bald is the default setting on any stage.  These men are wonderful actors so need never think of it as an issue. I just found it momentarily distracting — as if all the women had crew cuts, not a profound problem, but odd.

Kaye Voyce’s costumes are intriguing, signaling the qualified contemporary flavor of the piece.  There are running shoes and Unabomber hoodies, and Queen Gertrude wears a brilliant jumpsuit-cum-gown that telegraphs her sensuality and her regal status.   There’s an odd decision late in the last act that suddenly puts Hamlet and Laertes into formal fencing gear.  It seems a false step given that we the audience have been left on our own, for the whole of the long evening, to guess who’s changed character without changing costume.  The introduction of the fancy fencing outfits feels rather like a film, long in production, that suddenly gets an infusion of cash and everyone gets new wardrobe.

David Zinn knows his way around most stages but certainly the stages of the Public.  His design for this production is rather stark. He counts on the audience to see invisible parameters that he just suggests.  He uses more flowers and dirt and water than you might expect. Of course the Anspacher stage is modest, surrounded on three sides by 275 seats. It invites invention and cannot be anything but intimate.  It’s a big ask to surprise.  Brace yourself! The subway tiled toilet and sink downstage left fills that bill.

“The play within a play”  —  a popular gambit in Shakespeare’s plays — offers up a telling line.   As “the players” preview what they hope to perform later for the court, gasbag Polonius, interrupts to say: “this is too long!”

And it is — too long, to be sure, but too good to miss.

Hamlet – By William Shakespeare; directed by Sam Gold.

WITH: Roberta Colindrez (Rosencrantz), Ritchie Coster (Claudius), Peter Friedman (Polonius), Oscar Isaac (Hamlet), Keegan-Michael Key (Horatio), Gayle Rankin (Ophelia), Matthew Saldivar (Guildenstern), Charlayne Woodard (Gertrude), Anatol Yusef (Laertes), Ernst Reijseger (Cellist).

Designed by David Zinn, costumes by Kaye Voyce, lighting by Mark Barton, sound by Bray Poor, dramaturg is Michael Sexton and Andrew Wade handles voice and speech.

Presented by the Public Theater, artistic director Oskar Eustisat the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan.  Through September 3.  Running time: nearly 4 hours with two intermissions.