I saw *Hamlet* at the Public Theater on 8/5/17. I had read in the NY Times months ago that they were doing a production starring Oscar Isaac and Keegan-Michael Key, directed by Sam Gold, and knew I wanted to see it. I was hopped up to see this for months. I'd only seen *Hamlet* once before, at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin. That was a lovely performance - - this one promised to be, shall we say unusual?
It was even more unusual than I expected. It got off to a fun start - - Keegan-Michael Key (he's the tall guy of Key and Peele, if you know them) did the pre-show speech, asked people to turn off their cell phones or put them on airplane mode. And he asked us, at the intermission, NOT to come up to the stage and plug in our phones. I thought that was a reference to the yahoo who did that at *Hand To God* on Broadway a few years ago, but no, Key said that someone had done that at their show just the night before. The mind reels.
The play starts with guards seeing the ghosts of Hamlet's father. Gold staged this scene in the dark, with the lights coming up slightly when the ghost appeared. That was a wonderful way to start the show. He used a contemporary setting: a table, four chairs, people wearing contemporary clothes. That didn't bother me. I don't mind seeing Hamlet in a hoodie.
Oscar Isaac was fantastic. I've had a letch for him since *Inside Llewyn Davis* and was excited to see him onstage. He had a glorious facility with the language, spoke it with a resolutely American accent - - one of his early lines is "Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief..." and it was a joy to hear the R in the word "forms." We didn't have any of the mid-Atlantic hooey that you sometimes get from American actors in Shakespeare, but Isaac was clearly speaking with his own voice, which made his performance sincere and direct. And it must be said, I liked the section of the play when he walked around in his underwear. He has nice legs. Meaty.
The other standout performance was by Ritchie Coster as Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet's father (the play was done with nine actors, with thoughtful doubling of roles). He's English, and his accent was delicious. He played Claudius as a power-hungry, manipulative asshole, which really worked.
Sam Gold is a wildly uneven director, sometimes uneven in the same show. He's hit the ball out of the park in three shows I've seen: *Fun Home,* *The Flick,* and *A Doll's House Part 2* were all brilliant, great from start to finish. *The Glass Menagerie* and *Hamlet* both were illuminating and sometimes magical, but also needlessly wacky, a case of him needing to show us how clever he is, how only HE could imagine the bizarre thing we were seeing onstage. Let's not overlook the fact that these two plays (*The Glass Menagerie* and *Hamlet*) are among the most often performed plays on earth, which I'm sure intensified Gold's desire to do something peculiar with them.
Two things in particular annoyed me, and these are part of a larger trend in the theatre: first off, there's too much damn music. Of course I'm a fan of music, and live music, music written for the show, is a special joy, but use it sparingly, please! I swear that guy with the cello was playing a third of the time, which is a lot in a four-hour show. Though I did like Ophelia's singing in her scene with Gertrude, especially the hoedown that ended the scene. You wouldn't think a hoedown would work in *Hamlet,* but it was the one pleasing surprise in the show.
The other thing that bugs me even more is Making a Mess. We saw this in *The Maids* a couple of summers ago, they took a rack of gowns at the back of the stage and scattered them all over the floor. And in *The Crucible,* there was a big explosion at one point, with crap all over the floor for the rest of the show. Note to these directors: this is not drama, it's not informative, it doesn't add anything. It's just messy.
Sam Gold found a new level of messiness. Ophelia's father dies at one point (my apologies if this is a spoiler). The actor playing him was lying on the floor. Ophelia came onstage with a potted plant in a tall metal institutional-style planter. She knocked it over, pulled out the plant, and dumped the dirt onto the dead actor's legs. Then she left the stage, brought on another plant, and did the same thing. So that poor actor was lying there covered in dirt (thankfully only from the waist down).
Then, twenty minutes later, we get word that Ophelia has drowned. We typically get this news second-hand, but of course Gold had to stage her death. Gayle Rankin, as Ophelia, came onstage with a hose and held it above her head, until she was completely soaked. And she lied down next to the actor playing her father and put the hose between them. Other actors came onstage for the burial of Ophelia, but I hardly heard what they were saying because all I could pay attention to was the water mixing with the dirt and the mud pooling onto the floor. And then of course the actors had to kneel down in the mud and roll around in it. Does someone come in with a Stanley Steemer six times a week to clean that damn carpet? And the poor costumer, having to launder the caked mud out of the costumes. Again, it's not drama, and it doesn't add anything. It's useless to wonder what Shakespeare would have thought, but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have liked that.