×

Off Broadway Review: Oscar Isaac in ‘Hamlet’

With:
Oscar Isaac, Roberta Colindrez, Ritchie Coster, Peter Friedman, Keegan-Michael Key, Gayle Rankin, Matthew Saldivar, Charlayne Woodard, Anatol Yusef.

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.

Off Broadway Review: Oscar Isaac in 'Hamlet'

The Public Theater / Anspacher Theater; 275 seats; $115 top. . Opened July 13, 2017. Reviewed July 10. Running time: THREE HOURS, 45 MIN.

Production: A Public Theater production of a play in three acts by William Shakespeare.

Creative: Directed by Sam Gold. Sets, David Zinn; costumes, Kaye Voyce; lighting, Mark Barton; sound, Bray Poor; musical direction & composition, Ernst Reijseger; music coordinator, Michael Aarons; fight consultant, Thomas Schall; fencing master, Soren Thompson; voice speech coach, Andrew Wade; dramaturg, Michael Sexton; production stage manager, Kevin Bertolacci.

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Roberta Colindrez, Ritchie Coster, Peter Friedman, Keegan-Michael Key, Gayle Rankin, Matthew Saldivar, Charlayne Woodard, Anatol Yusef.

More Legit

  • The Play That Goes Wrong review

    BBC Orders Comedy Series Based on ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’

    The BBC has greenlit “The Goes Wrong Show,” a new series based on Mischief Theatre’s popular “The Play That Goes Wrong” stage production about a troupe that puts on disastrous plays. The stage show has transferred from London’s West End to Broadway for a J.J. Abrams-produced version described by Variety as “a broad, silly and [...]

  • By the Way Meet Vera Stark

    Off Broadway Review: 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' by Lynn Nottage

    After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Sweat” and “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head. Before we get too serious, let’s meet [...]

  • Merrily We Roll AlongRoundabout Theatre CompanyMERRILY

    Off Broadway Review: 'Merrily We Roll Along'

    Like the optimistic youths at the end — or is it the beginning? — of “Merrily We Roll Along,” creatives keep going back to this problematic Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, re-imagining the show in the hope that the end results will be different this time around. They’re not. But disappointments are often off-set by new [...]

  • My Fair Lady Laura Benanti

    Listen: Laura Benanti on 'My Fair Lady' and the Secret to Her Melania Trump Impersonation

    Laura Benanti is now playing her dream role on Broadway. At the same time, the Tony winner (“Gypsy”) is also playing her toughest part ever. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “It’s the most demanding part I think I’ll probably play,” said Benanti, now appearing as Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater’s well-received revival of [...]

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content