The Prince of Denmark has returned to the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival for the first time in a little over two decades, when Eric Booth, a descendant of Edwin Booth, acted the title role. This time around Jared Harris is Hamlet in a shapeless and curiously bland production, mounted with a glaring lack of imagination by Tom Gilroy. This is clearly a paint by the numbers “Hamlet,” in which the actors appear not only in search of the Bard, but in search of a director.
Visually colorless, with the exception of a massive moon, the production is staged upon a barren platform accented by flimsy scrims and an occasional footstool. The costumes were clearly designed for a pajama party. Skimpy tunics and black jumpsuits appear more in keeping with a gymnasium than Elsinore. Even the barefoot Dane spends a great deal of time from the “To be or not to be…” soliloquy through “what a rogue and peasant slave am I….,” and on to the point of welcoming the troupe of visiting players, in a nightshirt!
In his Festival debut, Harris is no scholarly prince, nor a noble warrior. Less an avenging son, he is little more than a whiny and whimpery neurotic schoolyard clown. While he makes some interesting choices, his speech pattern often lacks continuity and clarity. It is a restless, antic performance, lacking in degrees of melancholia, anger and fury.
The most interesting presence in the play is a filmed cameo by Richard Harris, Jared’s notable parent, as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Silver-haired and bearded, the veteran stage and screen star adds enormous strength with his crusty image. His gravely voice booms with daunting authority. “He was a man, take him for all in all,” young Hamlet reminds us, and Harris the elder defines the role with the eloquence of a grand weary monarch “doomed for a certain term to walk the night.”
The supporting cast is an uncommonly restless one, never appearing to relate to one another. An arrogant and irritable Claudius (Bill Raymond), is clearly lacking in regal posture. He is more grumpy old man than stately villain. The Gertrude of Maggie Low is elusive and oddly passive, void of passion and displaying no apparent ardent affection towards Claudius. The Polonius of William Bogert is reasonably stuffy and occasionally amusing. While he manages to illicit a few chuckles — the laughs are built-in — he tends to rush his lines and often stumbles along the way.
The fair Ophelia of Lili Taylor is an attractive, vulnerable lass who is angry from her very arrival onstage and whose suicidal mad scene is expressed, for the most part, by the slight tumbling locks of her once tidy coiffure.
Where is the warmth when Polonius bids farewell to his son, Laertes? The latter, as acted by Jason Weinberg is more likened to a scruffy homeless street bum than a headstrong man of action. A youthful Horatio (Ken Leung), Hamlet’s close friend and confidant, is so temperate and composed that he is very nearly invisible.
There are a few positive moments, notably Eric Hoffman’s witty Gravedigger and Gregory Jackson’s Rosencrantz. The latter, with only a handful of lines, knows how to speak the language. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes is a long time coming, but when it finally takes place, it is a spirited and well-staged affair. Yet there is something wrong when Yorick turns in the evening’s most positive performance and Fortinbras doesn’t even bother to show up.