Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet is to die for, but director Sam Gold’s bizarre “Hamlet” is to shoot on sight. Shakespeare has always been an accommodating chap; whatever interpretative indignities directors have inflicted on him over the years, he survives and often grows from the experience. This is not the case with Gold’s hammy production at the Public Theater, which is as pointless as it is solipsistic.
A few words to set the scene: There are only nine hard-working actors on stage, attired in Kaye Voyce’s dumpster-chic costumes. The most outlandish togs are worn by Gayle Rankin, who not only emotes awkwardly as Ophelia, but also looks a sight in black shorts and blouse and red anklets with black lace-up oxfords. Hamlet himself appears in his underwear, black t-shirt and matching briefs, for much of this almost-four-hour production. (But then, who’s complaining?)
Not much can be said about David Zinn’s scenic design, which consists mainly of a folding table placed in the middle of an empty stage and covered with fake flowers to make it look like a bier for the Ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father. Those scenes are actually moving, in a creepy way, thanks to the superb ghost-acting of Ritchie Coster, who is also pretty terrific doubling as Claudius.
Off to stage left is a door that opens onto a white-tiled bathroom where various unlucky performers, like poor Polonius (poor Peter Friedman), can deliver their lines while sitting on “the throne.”
Happily, the Public’s Anspacher Theater is a beautiful, intimate theater with wonderful sightlines that allow you to overlook much of this directorial gimmickry and admire Isaac’s brilliant performance up close and personal. Gold directs the first scene of the play in total darkness, an annoying practice he initiated in “Othello,” but when Isaac finally cuts through the murk to speak to his dead father’s ghost, every syllable of every word rings out with crystal clarity — and the show is saved.
You can say a lot of things about Isaac — that he’s a thoughtful, soulful, extremely charismatic actor — but the quality that will sustain him throughout the long career ahead of him is his enunciation. He engages other actors in a way that makes the lonely Prince of Denmark more human, which is a surprising treat. But it’s in the soliloquies that he makes the heart soar, with his precise phrasing and carefully articulated thoughts. The poetry of speeches like “To be or not to be” and “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt” have never seemed so immediate, the suffering behind the words never so palpable.
Is Hamlet crazy? Of course he is — and isn’t. In Isaac’s multi-faceted performance, he’s an angry young man, wild with grief and full of rage. He was born to rule a kingdom, but has been cruelly betrayed, robbed of his crown and everyone he loved. A king with no kingdom, he has no power to act at all, not even the power to control, or at least to understand, his own feelings. If this isn’t madness, it’s close enough.
This is not all technique, let’s be clear. The fire behind Isaac’s dynamic performance is fueled by deep, genuine emotion. His fans, who have followed him from “Inside Llewyn Davis” through to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” already know about the unhappy winter he spent caring for his mother, who died in February. And there seems no doubt that he forged his performance from the pain of that loss, or that this soul-baring role is something of a comfort.
In Gold’s weirdly cast production, the rest of the performances are almost evenly divided among good, meh, and let-me-out-of-here. Curiously, one of the best turns comes from the actor playing Laertes, a character who has a habit of disappearing in most productions of “Hamlet.” Here, he makes his presence felt in a riveting performance by Anatol Yusef (“Boardwalk Empire”).
Ritchie Coster, who has played Macbeth and looks the part, delivers the real power play, doubling as both Claudius and the brother-king he killed for his crown and his queen (a strangely subdued Charlayne Woodard). His is another voice that speaks the speech as it was meant, with power and poetry equally intact.
Keegan-Michael Key is our comic relief, switching from a very fine Horatio to a very funny Player King, whose over-emoting gives us an excuse to laugh. And then there’s Friedman who, aside from that humiliating toilet scene, is no fool and refuses to let Polonius play the old fool.
To be fair, Gold (“Fun Home”) is deconstructing the text to make a point. But unlike the cheeky portrayal of Caesar as a mini-tyrant on the order of Donald Trump (in the Public’s ferocious production of “Julius Caesar” at the Delacorte earlier this summer), whatever point the director means to make is for private ears only. Unless there’s something universal and eternal that I missed when, after she covers Polonius in the dirt from two potted plants, Ophelia drowned herself with a garden hose.