By Judd Hollander
Director Austin Pendleton tries a novel approach with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet starring Peter Sarsgaard in the title role, now being performed at Classic Stage Company. Sadly his idea runs out of steam soon after intermission, with the rest of the play turning into a long, unforgiving slog through the classic work.
Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, a place where all is not well. His father the King dying less than two months earlier, with his mother Queen Gertrude (Penelope Allen) having since married Claudius (Harris Yulin), his father's brother. Claudius subsequently ascending to the throne. But the dead king does not rest easy, his spirit returning with an ominous warning for his son. One which sets the Prince on vengeful course against those he believes sent his father to an early grave.
A common query about the storyline is whether Hamlet truly becomes mad after his ghostly encounter or if his sudden change in attitude, from one of brooding uneasiness to wild obsession is actually part of a scheme to uncover the truth about his father’s passing. Those people who get in the way of his mission simply becoming collateral damage.
While this forced change of perspective is an intriguing idea, it really doesn’t work, the result being that Hamlet becomes more of a curiosity rather than a tragic or somewhat sympathetic figure. Pendleton seeming to take great pains in making sure Hamlet is reduced to almost a cypher for a good part of the piece. It’s also worth noting that a speech showing Hamlet’s early self-doubts has also been edited, with the line about him feeling melancholy removed from the play.
All of the above aside, there are still some strong acting performances to enjoy throughout. Sarsgaard does well in showing the passion and anger in Hamlet, especially in a sequence where he takes his mother to task for marrying Claudius. Interestingly, Sarsgarrd’s characterization comes off as pretty one-dimensional until he meets the ghost, and only then do his passions begin to erupt. Allen is wonderful as Gertrude, imbuing her role with a distinct air of regalness and often playing the part on a higher level than the rest of the cast. This method causing a problem in her scenes with Yulin. While Yulin turns in a nicely low key performance, thus making the one time he gets visibly angry all the more powerful, his and Allen’s styles do not mesh well, it often feeling the two are performing in separate plays. Fortunately, Allen does work wonderfully well in her scenes with Sarsgaard, making their moments together one of the true highlights of the show.
Comically stealing every scene he’s in is Stephen Spinella as Polonius, a man who never used one word when 1,000 or more will do. When he promises to be brief while explaining to the royal couple what he is sure is the cause of Hamlet’s problems, he instead goes hilariously on and on. One can almost see the frustration in the King and Queen’s faces, along with the steam rising from their ears as they vainly urge him to get to the point. Elsewhere, Fitzgerald is strong as Laertes, a man who wants his own vengeance against Hamlet for what the latter has done to his family, while Austin Jones is good as Hamlet’s stalwart friend Hornito.
Walt Spangler’s set is an interesting choice, with a wedding cake ever present, along with a festive dining room table. The tableau offering an ironic comment on what should be a happy time and which instead turns out to be anything but. Constance Hoffman’s costumes, the entire play being done in modern dress, work well; as does the lighting by Justin Townsend.
Featuring: Scott Parkinson (Francisco/Rosencrantz/Player Queen/Gravedigger), Jim Broaddus (Barnardo/First Player/Player King/Captain), Austin Jones (Horatio), Daniel Morgan Shelly (Marcellus/Reynaldo/Guildenstern/Lucianus/Priest/Fortinbras), Harris Yulin (Claudius), Jim Broaddus (Voltemand), Glenn Fitzgerald (Laertes), Stephen Spinella (Polonius), Penelope Allen (Gertrude), Peter Sarsgaard (Hamlet), Lisa Joyce (Ophelia).
by William Shakespeare
Scenic Design: Walt Spangler
Costume Design: Constance Hoffman
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Original Music & Sound Design: Ryan Rumery/Scapesound
Wig & Hair Design: Dave Bova
Production Stage Manager: Timothy R. Semon
Assistant Sage Manager: Kristin M. Herrick
Fight Captain: Daniel Morgan Shelley
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Production Manager: Amber Mathis
General Manager: John C. Hume
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: (212) 352-3101/866-811-4111 or www.classicstage.org.
Running Time: 3 Hours, 20 Minutes, one intermission
Closes: May 10, 2015