Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park Review

It’s evident as soon as John Douglas Thompson opens his mouth as King Claudius that director Kenny Leon’s production of “Hamlet,” running for free at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through August 6th,  makes an uncommon commitment to clarity of diction, without allowing the actors to sound self-consciously Shakespearean, or even British.

The words pop out at you when Claudius, the first character to speak in this edited version of Shakespeare’s longest and best-known play, talks of wedding his sister-in-law Gertrude so soon after his brother’s death,  “with mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage…”

Ato Blankson-Wood’s Hamlet and Lorraine Toussaint’s Gertrude similarly stand out, amid a generally splendid cast, for their crystalline rendition of the Bard’s pithy phrases.

But the director aims not just to relay the meaning of Shakespeare’s language clearly. He also wants to use the tragedy – performed by a mostly Black cast — to illuminate African American life circa 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. That effort is nowhere near as clear.

  Claudius may be the first character to speak, but he’s not the first one to be heard. This production of “Hamlet” begins with a chorus of Black men in black suits singing some half dozen songs, some of them spirituals using lyrics from the Bible, some more like doo-wop harmonizing; one “Day-O,” Harry Belafonte’s 1950s calypso hit.  

They are at the funeral/wedding,  standing in front of a casket, which is in a room that looks like some kind of official residence (the governor’s?) with an American flag upright beside two other flags, and a portrait of a Black man dressed in what looks like the dress formal uniform of a United States Marine General. Is this Hamlet’s father? Does this mean he was a military dictator, or just a veteran?

This was not how I knew we were in Atlanta. Rather, there is an unmistakable clue that Kenny Leon’s “Hamlet” is something of a sequel  to his 2019 production at the Delacorte of “Much Ado About Nothing.” For that play,  scenic designer Beowulf Boritt created an inviting, recognizably Southern two-story brick house plastered with an enormous campaign banner promoting the hoped-for campaign of one of Georgia’s own: “Stacey Abrams 2020.” Boritt is again the scenic designer In the new production, and now the Stacey Abrams banner poster is half-buried in the ground, and the building is behind it at a surreal tilt, as if the ground had shifted beneath it – which it had, metaphorically. If 2019 was a year of hope, 2020 was the year of George Floyd.

Are we meant to see a parallel with Black life now and Hamlet’s brutal world?  That seems to be the takeaway in the rap by Jason Michael Webb, entitled  “Cold World,” that more or less replaces the play-within-the-play meant to catch the conscience of the king. In place of their spoken lines, the Player King and the Player Queen engage in a mute show while the players, dressed in colorful hip hop couture, rap:

“Days are precious when you’re livin in a warzone…City’s cold, but the streets are even colder…It’s a rat race on a mousetrap.”

Not all the most noticeable directorial touches seem explicitly intended to advance this parallel.

We first realize the presence of the ghost of Hamlet’s father because the SUV on the stage blinks its headlights and starts to shake; is the ghost in there, or has he possessed the car? Then, the ghost is on the house – or is the house – a projection and a reverberating bass voice out of a Star Wars movie.  I thought that even before I learned that what we’re hearing is a recording of the voice of Samuel L. Jackson. Then that projection on the house moves into focus, and we realize it’s Blankson-Wood, the actor portraying Hamlet, being videotaped live on stage portraying his father.

This last embodiment of the ghost is the most effective, because it provokes a question: Is Hamlet possessed by his father or obsessed with him?

So how is Ato Blankson-Wood’s performance?  It’s a challenging role that’s challenging to assess. I have no doubt there is a method to his madness, but I couldn’t always pin it down.  In his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, for example, he seems intellectually curious by the questions he is posing to himself rather than emotionally troubled. This, perhaps ironically,  is in sharp contrast to a later soliloquy by the evil Claudius. In it, Thompson communicates such powerful anguish that we almost sympathize with him. There are worse things than portraying the inherently enigmatic Hamlet enigmatically.

Despite the production’s commitment to clarity and judicious cutting, some theatergoers might feel a little… restless… as the play winds up its two hour and 45 minute runtime (including intermission.) But that’s not something I would admit in print.  Free Shakespeare in the Park is going on hiatus at the end of the summer, in order to renovate the Delacorte Theater. Now is not the time to be a marble-hearted fiend by expressing even a hint of ingratitude for one of New York City summertime’s greatest perks. 

Delacorte Theater in Central Park through August 6
Run time: approximately 2 hours 45 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.
Tickets: Free

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenny Leon
Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Jessica Jahn, lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes, sound design by Justin Ellington, projection design by Jeff Sugg,music composition by Jason Michael Webb, hair, wig and makeup design by Earon Chew Nealey, choreography by Camille A. Brown

Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood (Hamlet), Mikhail Calliste (Player), Liam Craig (Understudy), Brandon Gill (Guildenstern/Opening Vocalist), Safiya Harris (Gentlewoman/Ensemble), Lauryn Hayes (Player), Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Osric/Priest), Greg Hildreth (Gravedigger), LaWanda Hopkins (Player), Jaylon Jamal (Ensemble), Trí Lê (Barnardo/Ensemble), Colby Lewis (First Player/Opening Vocalist), Cornelius McMoyler (Gravedigger’s Assistant/Ensemble), Warner Miller (Horatio), Daniel Pearce (Polonius), Solea Pfeiffer (Ophelia), Nick Rehberger (Laertes), Laughton Royce (Messenger/Ensemble), Lance Alexander Smith (Marcellus/Opening Vocalist/Ensemble), John Douglas Thompson (Claudius), Lorraine Toussaint (Gertrude), Myxolydia Tyler (Understudy), William Oliver Watkins (Understudy), Lark White (Sailor/Ensemble), Mitchell Winter (Rosencrantz), and Bryce Michael Wood (Understudy).

Photographs by Joan Marcus

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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