Two summers ago, the Public Theater opened its Shakespeare in the Park season with a “Macbeth” that forcibly attempted to twist that drama of power, madness and ambition into a play about war. Looking again to emphasize contemporary relevance at the expense of dramatic integrity, Public a.d. Oskar Eustis’ bloodless retelling of “Hamlet” awkwardly reshapes an intimate tale of death and revenge into one of political conflict and disillusionment with the military-minded ruling class. As reasoned as the interpretation may be, it dulls the melancholy human heart of the play — a problem exacerbated by Michael Stuhlbarg’s inconsistent characterization as the brooding Dane.
Shakespeare in the Park’s tendency to push for buoyancy and accessibility generally makes the comedies an easier fit than the playwright’s tragedies or histories. Last year’s “Romeo & Juliet” was a welcome exception in which director Michael Greif embraced the gravity and sorrow of the play, rightly confining the cavorting to one or two supporting players. Eustis makes the bizarre choice of injecting mirth into gloomy Hamlet himself.
While Stuhlbarg’s soft-spoken, sweet-voiced Hamlet is as tormented and introspective as the best of them, he’s also a bit of a buffoon who appears to be channeling Robin Williams much of the time. The eternal debate over whether his madness is strategically feigned or genuine may rage on in Stuhlbarg’s performance, but the simpering playfulness and fussy physicality he brings to Hamlet’s soliloquies strips them of their emotional weight and robs the drama of its pathos.
Stuhlbarg is a fine actor who anchored the Atlantic’s crackerjack 2006 revival of “The Voysey Inheritance” with his agonized portrayal of an idealistic young man struggling to distance himself from his family’s corruption. In many ways, Hamlet’s arc is a parallel one, but it lacks clarity and depth here, echoing the ponderous and underfocused production’s inability to maintain fluid momentum.
Stuhlbarg’s Hamlet seems too lightheaded to be haunted; the character’s inaction is more exasperating than ever and his inner conflict less articulated. And while he becomes more emotionally compelling as the drama progresses and Hamlet acquires some resolve, it’s a long time coming. After almost 3½ hours on the Delacorte Theater’s purgatorial seating, numbness becomes the overriding response.
Sam Waterston’s Polonius also overdoes the clowning. While the windy adviser to the king is a hypocritical meddler, he’s also a loving father to Ophelia (Lauren Ambrose) and Laertes (David Harbour). Pleasing as it is to see Waterston back on a New York stage (the same one on which he played Hamlet in 1975), his performance is an unresolved battle between a well-meaning, good-hearted man and an ineffectual fool, which also contributes to lower the emotional stakes.
Favoring naturalistic, conversational delivery over speechy artificiality, the other cast members are an uneven mix, most of them lacking any inner life and rarely justifying Hamlet’s obsessive preoccupation.
A bewitching Juliet last year, Ambrose is a luminous stage presence who adds innocence and poignancy, but she’s overdirected in Ophelia’s self-consciously physicalized mad scene. As Gertrude, Margaret Colin lurches between poised first lady in picture-perfect Jackie Kennedy mode (Ann Hould-Ward’s modern-dress costumes are mid-20th century, with military garb for the men) and soulless, soap-operatic matron, notably in the clumsily played, borderline incestuous bedroom confrontation with Hamlet. Andre Braugher, somewhat perplexingly, makes usurper king Claudius an almost benign figure, given celebrity entrances but little to suggest the ruthlessness of a man who killed his brother for the throne.
The lesser roles are ultimately the most satisfyingly drawn here: Kevin Carroll makes Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio a steadfast, empathetic figure; Harbour brings much-needed emotional heft to Laertes’ devastated reaction to the insanity and subsequent death of his sister Ophelia; and Jay O. Sanders’ relaxed humor is a good match for the Player King and Gravedigger.
Staged on designer David Korins’ unyielding slab of black rock, backed by an industrial, white metal fortress with large central gates and upper battlements, the production’s visual severity is interrupted only by the poetic flourish of Basil Twist’s stylized puppetry in the play-within-the-play scenes. The most effective design stroke is the placement downstage center of a small grave with an eternal flame, signaling the restless soul of Hamlet’s murdered father that hovers over and to some extent directs the proceedings.
But Eustis seems most concerned with the war motif, which is odd for a play inarguably more riveting as personal than political drama. Given that so many stagings have dispensed, to no great textual loss, with scenes concerning the advance of the Norwegian army led by Fortinbras (Piter Marek), their emphatic inclusion here further unbalances the uninvolving production. And while there’s certainly a punch to the final liberty taken, as Fortinbras removes the last of the all-but-extinguished Danes, it’s a heavy-handed statement.
Playing up the behavior-warping anxiety of war for an American audience disgusted after five years of a pointless conflict not only feels like easy pandering, it dilutes rather than reinvigorates Shakespeare’s tragedy.