Tragedy? Says who? With its new "Hamlet," directed by Andrei Serban, the Public Theater presents not the monumental Shakespeare tragedy in five acts but a travesty of it in two.

Tragedy? Says who? With its new “Hamlet,” directed by Andrei Serban, the Public Theater presents not the monumental Shakespeare tragedy in five acts but a travesty of it in two.

This is the result not of incompetence but incontinence — Mr. Serban’s — of the stylistic variety. The Romanian director is known for his adventurous takes on hallowed texts, and goodness knows there’s none more hallowed than “Hamlet.” Not surprisingly, then, he approaches the play with a willful irreverence, attempting to up-end traditional ideas about this most death-haunted of dramas by invigorating it at every turn with the life-giving sound of laughter.

It’s an audacious conceit, certainly, but one that begins to ring desperately hollow long before the play arrives at its bloody close, by which time the audience is likely to be twiddling its collective thumbs rather than sitting shell-shocked at the spectacle of so much humanity destroyed. Sadly, the joke isn’t on Shakespeare (he’s survived worse), but on Liev Schreiber, an intelligent, magnetic young actor whose attempt to shape an emotionally compelling Hamlet is hamstrung by the surrounding stylistic tumult.

Serban’s cockeyed “Hamlet” begins at an emotional fever pitch, with an almost comically overwrought tangle among the sentries, who evince more distress at their encounter with the ghost of the late king than anyone else does for the rest of the play’s nearly four-hour running time. It concludes at the opposite end of the thermometer, with Claudius embracing his doom with a bland smile and a shrug, and watching his beloved queen drink down hers no less placidly.

In between, there are all manner of surprising touches: a Laertes with obviously incestuous designs on his sister Ophelia; an Osric who enters aloft, levitating like Peter Pan; much pretended puppetry; Hamlet in pig mask and bloody apron; a pageant of posters bearing the likenesses of previous stage Danes accompanying the young prince’s instructions to the players. But Serban’s myriad quirks of staging don’t often illuminate Shakespeare’s text; they mostly just compete with it (as does Elizabeth Swados’ sometimes pretty, sometimes comic, but always overused music). Sometimes — particularly when Schreiber is center stage — Shakespeare wins a round; just as often, Serban does. Needless to say, in the end the biggest loser is the audience.

The director seems to approach each scene as a discreteentity: What can we do to get an unexpected laugh or unearth a new idea here? What is lost, of course, is what we call drama: action and reaction, cause and effect, the unfolding of human destinies in time, pointed up in “Hamlet” by Shakespeare’s nerve-straining use of suspense. Such tensions are entirely in abeyance in Serban’s “Hamlet,” where random theatrical japes continually take precedence over psychological progression.

In this “Hamlet,” it’s not just Polonius who’s a figure of fun (when foolishly trying to analyze Hamlet’s madness, he delivers his comments into a mini tape recorder); so is virtually everyone else. Colm Feore’s smarmy Claudius accents the hypocrisies of his opening speech with ludicrously stagy gestures mimicked by the courtiers below, dressed in the strangest of Marina Draghici’s strange assortment of costumes. Claudius and Diane Venora’s emotional cipher of a Gertrude grope each other grotesquely. These are featherweight, winking interpretations of characters whose behavior, after all, preoccupies the most metaphysically preoccupied character in stage history — they shouldn’t merely be the self-infatuated buffoons that Serban offers. (The descent of Lynn Collins’ Ophelia isn’t much more gripping: She’s played as one of the spoiled, self-dramatizing teens from a Fox drama.) Among the supporting cast, only the fine Horatio of Christian Camargo seems meant to be taken seriously.

John Coyne’s sets — a gold-washed facade with doors and window through which the characters are always on the watch, giant screens painted with crosses — surround an outcropping of rock that comes to seem a symbol of the great, unmovable beauty of Shakespeare’s language, which no amount of directorial flash can obfuscate when it’s delivered by an actor of Schreiber’s talent and integrity.

In fact that rock may be the same one that co-starred with Schreiber in Serban’s “Cymbeline” in Central Park two summers ago. Schreiber’s terrific performance as Iachimo in that attractive but uneven production augured great Shakespearean things to come from this young actor, and the actor tries valiantly to deliver on that promise.

His is at times an overly eccentric performance, as it cannot but be amid Serban’s vaudevillian dervish of a production. (Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man…” is presented as mere mockery of the doltishly played Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.) Schreiber’s Hamlet begins the play at his greatest pitch of grief, punch-drunk with despair at his father’s death. He regains his equanimity fairly quickly, and never really loses it again: This is a Hamlet who is definitely only mad “north-northwest,” robbing the play of a good measure of its psychological mystery.

If Schreiber’s is not an emotionally gripping Hamlet — after each haunted soliloquy, he reverts quickly to the knowing, sardonic manipulator who keeps the audience in comfortable complicity with his shenanigans — his is certainly a beautifully spoken, brilliantly lucid and continually funny one. The actor delivers the verse with impressive clarity as well as an intuitive flair for its cadences. He’s never less than transfixing when he’s taking us through the dark, complex terrain of Hamlet’s thought.

But ultimately, and despite Schreiber’s obvious talent and commitment, his Hamlet can only have a theoretical majesty. With Serban’s tongue-in-cheek production continually vitiating any emotional involvement in the play, we’re never fully alive to the beauty of Hamlet’s consciousness and the final horror of its stilling. And that, of course, is a minor tragedy of its own.

Hamlet

Joseph Papp Public Theater/Newman Auditorium; 299 seats; $45

Production

A Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of the Shakespeare play in two acts. Directed by Andrei Serban.

Creative

Sets, John Coyne; costumes, Marina Draghici; lighting, Michael Chybowski; music, Elizabeth Swados; sound, Donald DiNicola and Obadiah Eaves; dramaturg, Mervin P. Antonio; production stage manager, Abbie H. Katz. Producer, George C. Wolfe; artistic producer, Rosemarie Tichler. Opened Dec. 19, 1999. Reviewed Dec. 18. Running time: 3 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Francisco - David Wilson Barnes
Bernardo - Andrew Garman
Marcellus - Adam Greer
Horatio - Christian Camargo
Claudius/Ghost - Colm Feore
Laertes - Hamish Linklater
Polonius - Richard Libertini
Hamlet - Liev Schreiber
Gertrude - Diane Venora
Ophelia - Lynn Collins
Rosencrantz - Jeremy Shamos
Guildenstern - Jonathan Fried
Player King/Gravedigger - George Morfogen
Player Queen/Osric - Francis Jue
Lucianus/Captain - Dion Flynn
Gentlewoman - Robin Weigert
Sailor - Marc Gwinn
Priest - Robert Alexander Owens
Fortinbras - Justin Campbell, Wendy Rich Stetson
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