What is the most bizarre moment in director Sam Gold’s experimental and extremely playful staging of “Hamlet,” which just opened at the Public Theater and has already sold out its limited run?
There are so many to choose from: Hamlet strutting around without pants, Polonius giving orders while sitting on the toilet, the tender embrace between Hamlet and Claudius at their deaths, and Ophelia and Polonius (covered in dirt, lying with a garden hose, dead) suddenly morphing into the gravediggers.
This production of Shakespeare’s timeless revenge tragedy is stripped down (with nine actors in street clothes and minimal scenic design) and intimate (with the audience in a three-quarter seating configuration).
Playing the Danish prince is Oscar Isaac, who jump-started his career with starring roles in Shakespeare in the Park productions and has since earned international recognition with the films “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Isaac makes for a handsome and lyrical Hamlet, smoothly shifting from quiet introspection to manic eruption.
The cast also includes Keegan-Michael Key (“Key & Peele”) as a prominently featured Horatio, Peter Friedman as a firm, businesslike Polonius, Charlayne Woodard as a weary but statured Gertrude, Gayle Rankin as an Ophelia who channels her mistreatment into aggression and Ritchie Coster as a liquor-guzzling, soft-spoken Claudius.
Gold is best known for his involvement with contemporary works such as the musical “Fun Home” and Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” This marks his second professional production of a Shakespeare play, following “Othello” with Daniel Craig.
Some of Gold’s novel directorial touches work quite well, such as having Key ham it up during the players’ silent re-enactment of the king’s murder (flagrantly disregarding Hamlet’s advice on proper acting) and using mood-enhancing underscoring (performed on cello, organ and other instruments by Ernst Reijseger).
The production is almost always interesting (despite the length, just under four hours), but it lacks a coherent vision and becomes too consumed by experimental tactics. Perhaps Gold and Isaac can continue developing it and bring it back in a year or so.