It has been said that a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters would eventually come up with Hamlet. That’s as may be; certain is that one really big monkey with one computer can produce Hamlet in no time flat and reduce it to the most ludicrous and lamentable smithereens. In a better world, Andrei Serban wouldn’t even be a semi-acclaimed director but something more suitable, like a men’s room attendant.
The Hamlet on view at the Public Theater – like a festering corpse in an open coffin – is preposterous from start to finish, lacking even a grain of truth. In this production, by rights, Hamlet wouldn’t puke only once, as he does early on, onto what is the sole piece of three-dimensional scenery here and serves in turn as a rock, a bench, a bed, a mound of dug-up earth, a vomitorium, and whatever. He would do so every few minutes, like clockwork, at the stomach-turning shenanigans I can barely begin to list here. Among my favorites are the triumphant warrior Fortinbras represented by a pair of barefoot drips in angel costume, he blond and epicene, she a redheaded virago. Again, the mad Ophelia coming on in elegantly soigné black, then, after a quick change, in elegantly soigné white, while the supposedly sane characters wear the maddest outfits a misguided costumer could dredge up.
More than one character is flown in, as in a demented version of Peter Pan. By some sort of insane mitosis, the Ghost multiplies into three or four motley sashaying spirits, some in ballerina-ish tulle worn over hand-me-down armor. Whenever any character steps into a certain upstage area, his voice turns echo-chamber hypertrophic. Just about every speech is systematically travestied or butchered, not just to be different, which would be bad enough, but to be rendered devoid of meaning. The dead Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are used as props by Hamlet in a scene in which they don’t even belong. The Gravedigger wears a T-shirt with CLOWN in large letters on the chest, no doubt a cherished item from Serban’s personal wardrobe.
As bad as Serban’s direction is the costuming by fellow Romanian Marina Dragichi and the dismal and obsessive music by an honorary Romanian, Elizabeth Swados, all striving to do unto Shakespeare as the Ceausescus did to their country. The one worthy exception is Michael Chybowski’s lighting, gravely hampered by the wretched scenery of John Coyne.
Equally hamstrung are the actors. I doubt if Liev Schreiber would ever be the ideal Hamlet, but you can see his talent in that lovely but stupidly underrated film A Walk on the Moon. Even the perverse hairdos inflicted on her would make a joke out of Gertrude, but you can see how good Diane Venora can be in this year’s best American movie, The Insider. The able Canadian actor Colm Feore almost survives as Claudius. Lynn Collins is at least attractive as Ophelia; the rest are either grossly miscast, like Richard Libertini (Polonius), or, like George Morfogen (Player King and Gravedigger), uncastable as anything. Unless you enjoy laughing out of the wrong side of your mouth, avoid this unconscionable Shamlet.