Review: Hamlet Starring Oscar Isaac at the Public Theater. Directed by Sam Gold

As you might have heard, Oscar Isaac walks around in his underpants in the Public Theater production of “Hamlet.” But the most startling visual occurs much later. There’s a sudden, striking and initially mystifying shift more than three hours into the show, when Sam Gold, its aggressively inventive director,  seems to have turned Shakespeare’s tragedy into performance art.

Polonius (Peter Friedman, in modern business suit) is lying dead on the orange-red carpet, when his daughter Ophelia (Gayle Rankin) leaves the theater up the right aisle to fetch the kind of huge metal planter that’s a common sight in office lobbies, pulls out the leafy plant from it, and dumps all the dirt from it on Dad. Then she leave the theater up the left aisle to fetch an identical planter, and dumps that on him as well. Afterwards, she goes backstage and brings out a garden hose, sprays her father with it, and lies down next to him, in the mud, the hose dribbling water. In this way, we see Ophelia “drown” onstage.

But they’re not done. Both of them soon rise up from the dead, and play with skulls.

It takes a moment to realize that Polonius and Ophelia (or rather, the performers who were portraying them) have turned into the gravediggers – a scene (which many directors cut or sharply reduce) that eventually leads to the familiar “Alas, Poor Yorick” speech by Hamlet while he holds up a skull.

One can argue that Gold is being practical here. There are only nine cast members in this production of a play that calls for more than two dozen characters. Polonius and Ophelia are now dead, after all, which frees up the two actors to take on secondary roles. And if they are going to take on new roles, they might as well do so ….memorably.

Yes, this will confuse many in the audience, but maybe confusion is part of Gold’s concept; isn’t Hamlet the character confused?

The unusual staging with Polonius and Ophelia is just the most vivid example of what’s evident from the get-go: Sam Gold aims to stir things up with this “Hamlet,” and he’s using his playbook from past productions to do so. Like his recent Broadway production of “The Glass Menagerie,” the set and costumes of this “Hamlet” are modern and minimal. Like “The Flick,” “Hamlet” takes his time; it’s nearly four hours long, although that includes two intermissions. Reminiscent of Gold’s recent “Othello” at New York Theatre Workshop, the first scene of “Hamlet,” between the sentinels, Horatio and King Hamlet’s ghost, is performed entirely in the dark; and then later the house lights come full up on the audience.

There are more syringes than swords in Gold’s “Hamlet.” The death of the King in the play-within-a-play is stretched out and played for laughs. Jazz cellist Ernst Reijseger is a constant presence on stage, underscoring the play, his presence sometimes acknowledged by the characters. This is a production that values cleverness over emotional engagement.

Yet, for all this fiddling around, and despite too many moments of director-engendered incoherence, Gold’s “Hamlet” ultimately worked for me. This is largely for the same reason that I was glad I saw the Gold-directed “A Doll’s House Part 2” – the acting.

Or, more precisely, one actor: the Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac, better known as a screen actor (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Show Me a Hero” mini-series on HBO), and as a recently-minted blockbuster star (“X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”) But Isaac is also a graduate of Juilliard, and his classical training shows.

Now, Isaac doesn’t entirely escape Gold’s zealous directorial touches. He not only walks around in underpants and a t-shirt for a substantial amount of time — when Hamlet is feigning madness; he also comes out wearing a paper toilet seat cover around his neck. He delivers the “To be or not to be” speech lying down – which mirrors the very first image of the production (before the dialogue begins), of his father King Hamlet lying down on a folding table, dead.

But Gold’s radical interpretation of the play did not for me undermine the power and clarity of Isaac’s Hamlet (the way I felt Gold’s radical direction of The Glass Menagerie did to Sally Field’s Amanda.) Given how many extraordinary actors have taken on Hamlet, it would be foolish and maybe even arrogant of me to attach a superlative to Isaac’s performance. But he avoids many of the traps of the role; for example, he doesn’t love the sound of his own voice too much when delivering the most famous soliloquies in the English language. Isaac is adept at plumbing the lines for their meaning; his delivery is nearly conversational, and remarkably accessible. If he doesn’t emphasize the poetry of Shakespeare’s language as much as other artists have, neither does he disrespect it.

Isaac is backed by a few standout performances, in particular Ritchie Coster, who portrays Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous stepfather with a hint of thug about him (aided by some muscular tattoos); this seemed just right. Peter Friedman, always reliable, offers a solid Polonius, and Keegan-Michael Key, of the Key and Peale comedy duo, makes a vibrant Horatio, Hamlet’s friend. But Key is also the hammy player in the confusing play-within-the-play who milked his death like a vaudevillian, and Coster also portrays King Hamlet, the ghost, which occasionally added to the confusion (Is this King Claudius now, or King Hamlet’s ghost?) Gayle Rankin feels miscast as Ophelia — as fragile and distraught as an Olympic wrestler who’s gone punk. Or maybe that’s exactly the type Sam Gold wanted to cast; after all, Rankin plays Sheila the She-Wolf in the current Netflix wrestling series, GLOW. She certainly knew how to pin down that garden hose.

Read Hamlet

click on any image by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Gold
Scenic Design by David Zinn
Costume Design by Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design by Mark Barton
Sound Design by Bray Poor
Musical Direction, Composition and Performance by Ernst Reijseger
Cast: Roberta Colindrez (Rosencrantz); Ritchie Coster (Claudius);Peter Friedman (Polonius); Oscar Isaac (Hamlet); Keegan-Michael Key (Horatio); Gayle Rankin (Ophelia); Matthew Saldívar (Guildenstern); Charlayne Woodard (Gertrude) and Anatol Yusef (Laertes).

Running time: 3 hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions.

Tickets: $115. $20 day of show lottery tickets,

Hamlet is scheduled to run through September 3,2017.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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