I’m feeling anticipatory rue over Sam Gold’s staging of Hamlet at the Public Theater, which stars Star Wars heartthrob Oscar Isaac as the Dane and TV comedian Keegan-Michael Key as Horatio. My melancholy stems not from the production itself, which I found deeply satisfying: coolly conceptual but grounded in palpable, messy passions, with Shakespeare’s miraculous text spoken with clarity and power. I’m sad because I fully expect this Hamlet will give New York’s audiences and pundits yet another chance to show how stupid and provincial they are. “Pretentious,” “obscure,” “emptily avant-garde” and, worst of all, “boring” are bound to be thrown at Gold & Co by critics who think they know how Shakespeare ought to be staged, or by audiences whose theatrical tastes would not be out of place in 1950s Wisconsin.
This is a modern-dress Hamlet on a unit set with a deliberately generic rehearsal-room vibe (red carpeting, folding table, chairs and potted plants that figure heavily into the action). Most of the nine ensemble members are double- or triple-cast, a practice that is economical but also brings out juicy resonances in the architecture of the play. For example, the sinewy, bullet-headed Ritchie Coster plays both King Hamlet and his murderous brother Claudius. You can tell when he’s playing the King because he takes off his shirt to reveal a medical port in his bicep, so that he can receive an IV drip. There’s a sense that Hamlet’s father didn’t die swiftly in the garden from the “leprous distilment” drizzled into his ear, but had a lingering death in the cancer ward. The cheeky comic duo of Roberta Colindrez and Matthew Saldivar play both loyal Elsinore guards Bernardo and Marcellus, and also Hamlet’s disloyal classmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
But the most daring and powerful piece of double casting comes toward the end of this nearly four-hour staging, when dead Ophelia (plucky Gayle Rankin) and her father Polonius (Peter Friedman) rise from the dead, as it were, to become First and Second Gravedigger. In truth, the father and daughter rise from a literally muddy grave – but I won’t spoil it any more.
Gold’s Hamlet is the most family-obsessed I can recall. True, we all know it’s a tragedy about a vacillating son’s tortuous path to revenging the death of his father, a journey that dredges up the son’s contempt and disgust for his mother (and all women, really). Over the course of five acts, Hamlet reinvents himself as princely hero, antic clown, arts patron, Puritan scold, hectic madman and, finally, holy poet and soldier. However, as rendered with genuine fire and smoldering intelligence by Isaac, Hamlet comes across first and foremost as a grieving son, paralyzed by filial guilt. I don’t mean that Isaac plays him as an immature man-child. His line readings are smart, reflective and tinged with irony. But for all Hamlet’s genius and academic sophistication, Gold shows him as a scared and loveless boy. Isaac spends a rather long part of Act Three wearing no pants, like a bratty kid who refuses to get dressed. The “closet” scene between Hamlet and Gertrude (Charlayne Woodard) becomes almost unbearably intimate with the entrance of the Ghost (Coster), as Gold arranges the characters in a tableau that centers the tragic motor of the play in the broken family.
I like this production because, among other reasons, the language is front and center, spoken with admirable lucidity and clarity. It’s like being at a perfect recitation of the play, not muddied by overacting or distracting visuals or a hare-brained period setting. There are long sections in near-total darkness – such as the opening scene at night on the battlements. At such times, the production unfolds like a radio drama, action happening in our minds. (In this sense, it’s absolutely true to the Elizabethan spirit: spare and focused on the language.) So, we have a Hamlet that engages the audience’s imagination and intellect, without vainly trying to pluck out the heart of its mystery, to paraphrase our hero. And, most surprising of all, it’s really funny.
Keegan-Michael Key is justly celebrated for his brilliant TV sketch work. His Horatio is sweet-tempered, if not an overt jokester. However, when he switches into the role of a visiting player, and acts out the dumb show before The Murder of Gonzago, he performs the most ridiculous slapstick death-by-poison you will ever see. I can hear the grumbling: Conference-room aesthetic? Scenes in total darkness? A half-naked prince? Fine. But making Hamlet ridiculously funny? To some, that may be unforgivable.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.