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That Is the Question

Is Michael Stuhlbarg a great Hamlet, or only pretending to be one?

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Illustration by Henry Janson  

Even by the standards of Things You Might See in Central Park at Night, the scenery David Korins has designed for the Public’s revival of Hamlet is perverse. He has erected amid all that green loveliness a massive whitish wall, topped by a black metal catwalk, running the entire width of the Delacorte stage. At once squat and looming, it’s so ruinous of the blissed-out harmony that Shakespeare’s words and the park’s splendor create every summer that we might as well be in midtown.

From the deliberate way that Hamlet gestures toward the wall as he declares that “Denmark’s a prison,” you get the sense that director Oskar Eustis wanted to convey the corruption and confinement of Claudius’s Denmark. The play’s politics do snap into focus more clearly than usual here, as Fortinbras takes over at the finale with alarming force. Still, the wall seems a fitting emblem for the show only when a heavy door occasionally slides open to offer a tantalizing glimpse of Turtle Pond—just the kind of catalyzing flash this revival doesn’t find often enough.

Which isn’t to say there’s a lack of energy sloshing around up there. Michael Stuhlbarg, an actor whose well-spoken intensity has won him admirers both downtown and on Broadway (where he stole the show as the troubled brother in The Pillowman), tears into the role he’s long been destined to play. In the early scenes, he’s a Hamlet of the old school, a romantic barnstormer who yells and weeps and stamps his feet. It’s all very captivating, except that we still have three-plus hours of ever-escalating drama to go, in which Hamlet goes mad (or seems to), manhandles his mother, directly or indirectly kills five people, and breaks up with his girlfriend. Many of Stuhlbarg’s big soliloquies, surprisingly, tilt to the other extreme, as he delivers them at a tempo charitably described as stately: He all but sounded out “To be or not to be” by the syllable.

The performance doesn’t add up to the triumph I’d hoped for, though it certainly has its moments. Scheming with Horatio, taunting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for thinking they can play him like a recorder, erupting in grief at Ophelia’s grave: When Stuhlbarg avoids histrionics on one side and longueurs on the other, he nails the mix of intelligence, passion, and pain that have kept us puzzling over Hamlet for 400 years.

It helps that Lauren Ambrose gives him a worthy, if unlikely, equal. Last season in the park, her luminous Juliet mixed girlishness and sophistication, lacking only a little feel for the verse. As Ophelia, she has the same charm and radiance—her red, red hair shines like a flame effect on this antiseptic set—only now she makes much of the poetry sing. The performances tend to fall away from there. Margaret Colin and André Braugher leave uncharacteristically little impression as Gertrude and Claudius. Though Sam Waterston has charisma to spare, as befits the leading man who played Hamlet on this stage in 1975, his noble bearing makes him an awkward fit for foolish old Polonius, a character actor’s role if ever there was one.

It’s depressing to say so, but these shortcomings aren’t novel. They hew pretty closely to the industry standard for recent American productions of Shakespeare. (Deny it all you like, but the Brits have been kicking our ass.) Though the revival deserves credit for verse-speaking that’s smoother and clearer than usual, that’s no compensation for its inability to realize one of the play’s great glories: the enlivening streak of dark comedy. Hamlet is, after all, a master ironist who introduces himself with a bleak little joke. His story is plainly the work of a wily showman genius, one with an unerring sense of when to bring on, say, the ridiculous Osric to lighten the gloom. Who knows? Had I laughed more, I might not have resented squinting through those fluorescent lights on a starry night in the park.

Hamlet
By William Shakespeare.
Delacorte Theater. Through June 29.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.


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