Classic Stage Company’s “Hamlet” might just be the definitive “Hamlet” for the twenty-first century. Staged with shimmering creativity, the iconic Shakespearian tragedy bristles with a contemporary edge firmly rooted in tradition. The castle in Elsinore here is a swanky mansion with a designer dining table, bar, and contemporary seating areas. The platform, the room of state, Polonius’s house, the churchyard, and other rooms in the castle are unadorned playing areas at the fringes of the room of state (the main setting). The action often takes place in minimal light, or a fully lighted theatre, or in delicious pools of light provided by lighting designer Justin Townsend. And the Ghost does not speak in this production: we only know of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father through the eyes and ears of Hamlet.
The characters in “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” their engaging conflicts, and the plot these conflicts drive have, of course, not changed in this production. They have simply all become clearer and even more engaging and transformative. Peter Sarsgaard is a Hamlet firmly planted in the twenty-first century and Mr. Sarsgaard gives his Hamlet more dimensions and more depth than most Hamlets that have preceded his. Hamlet here is beyond brooding, beyond reproach, beyond redemption. Peter Sarsgaard delivers Hamlet’s soliloquies and asides as Shakespeare intended them – not as iconic monologues meant to impress a casting agent, but with the remarkable understanding of iambic pentameter, the rhythm of the heart. “To Be Or Not to Be,” “Alas, Poor Yorick,” and conversations with Ophelia and Gertrude ring more with authenticity and honesty than bravura and bombast.
Harris Yulin and Penelope Allen have successfully portrayed Claudius and Gertrude respectively with the height of perfidy. They are despicable, delusional, and destructive. This is one of the few productions of “Hamlet” that draw the audience into the unspeakable (and unspoken) possibility that Claudius is the birth father of Hamlet. Stephen Spinella is the ultimate Polonius – a dapper Dan who both knows his place and would like to ascend to a place higher and an overachieving father who realizes his children Laertes (Glenn Fitzgerald) and Ophelia (Lisa Joyce) might have drifted far from his paternal influence. Glenn Fitzgerald’s finest moment comes when his Laertes returns to avenge his father Polonius’s death (Act IV).
If there is room for improvement in CSC’s “Hamlet” it would be in striving to bring consistency to the performances. Peter Sarsgaard (Hamlet), Harris Yulin (Claudius), Stephen Spinella (Polonius), Penelope Allen (Gertrude), and Jim Broaddus (Player King/others) set the performance bar quite high in this production and other performances often do not reach the level necessary to maintain that bar. In particular the important character of Horatio (Austin Jones) is not fully developed and his deep relationship with Hamlet is never realized. Unfortunately, this results in a rather flat farewell in the final scene. The character of Ophelia (Lisa Joyce), too, is rather oddly developed and Ms. Joyce’s scenes with Mr. Sarsgaard are not as satisfying as they might be. Perhaps these issues will resolve as the run continues. Additionally, the final scene seems a bit lackluster and needs to be stronger.
That said, under Austin Pendleton’s transformative direction, Classic Stage Company’s “Hamlet” transcends Elizabethan revenge tragedy and with surgical precision cuts deeply into Hamlet’s ennui and his alienation from life. This is a “Hamlet” not to be missed with enduring connections with contemporary social and political arenas.
Written by William Shakespeare and directed by Austin Pendleton. Scenic design for “Hamlet” is by Walt Spangler, costume design by Constance Hoffman, lighting design by Justin Townsend and original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery. Production photos are by Carol Rosegg. Presented by Classic Stage Company (Artistic Director Brian Kulick, Managing Director Jeff Griffin and Executive Director Greg Reiner) at CSC (136 East 13th Street) for a limited engagement through Sunday, May 10. Tickets start at $65.00 and are available at www.classicstage.org or by calling (212) 352-3101 / 866-811-4111 or at the box-office at 136 East 13th Street (between Third and Fourth Avenues). Running time is 3 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.
WITH: Penelope Allen (Gertrude), Jim Broaddus (Player King/others), Glenn Fitzgerald (Laertes), Austin Jones (Horatio), Lisa Joyce (Ophelia), Scott Parkinson (Rosencrantz/others), Peter Sarsgaard (Hamlet), Daniel Morgan Shelley (Guildenstern/others), Stephen Spinella (Polonius) and Harris Yulin (Claudius).