Get thee to the Winter Garden for ‘Hamlet’


By Julie Shapiro

Director Stephen Burdman introduced his new production of “Hamlet” Thursday night with some friendly advice to his audience.

“You gotta stay on your toes,” Burdman told the crowd of people gathered in the World Financial Center for the play’s opening night. “The actors will be in front of you, behind you, to the side of you and right in the middle.”

In addition to staying on their toes, the theatergoers also spent much of the performance on their feet — following the actors as they roved around the office complex’s hallways and courtyards. Hamlet stabbed Polonius in a little-used lobby leading to West St.; the Winter Garden’s grand staircase became Denmark’s royal court; and the final scene, which left nearly everyone stabbed or poisoned, took place in the shadowy basin of 1 W.F.C., beneath the escalator.

The audience gamely followed along, rising every 10 minutes or so at the instructions of Hamlet (Justin Blanchard) and a distraught Ophelia (Ginny Myers Lee), who at one point screeched, “Come you with me! Quickly!”

The New York Classical Theatre has been staging free, wandering productions in Battery Park and Central Park since 2000. “Hamlet” marks the first time Burdman, the company’s artistic director, has presented a play indoors.

“I want the audience to literally follow the characters through the play,” Burdman said after the first show last Thursday, presented through a partnership with the World Financial Center arts program. “By asking the audience to join in the play and not be pure spectators, they get more involved.”

“You can’t get bored,” agreed Jillian Lindig, who attended opening night to support her husband, Claudius (a k a John Michalski). “And you don’t get sleepy, because you’re constantly moving.”

The Shakespearean tragedy started Thursday evening in a busy hallway overlooking restaurants on one side and the North Cove on the other. Office workers rushed past, some so absorbed in their BlackBerries that they unwittingly walked onto the stage and looked up, startled, to find costumed actors and 150 people watching their every move. When the action moved to the bustling Winter Garden, a couple dozen workers and families joined the audience, which swelled to more than 200.

It was difficult to find a bad seat — those who positioned themselves in the back often found themselves in the front as actors burst in from all directions and strode through the crowd.

One of the youngest and most attentive listeners was 2½-year-old Marco Ortiz. He grabbed his parents by the hand and pulled them toward the action, sitting transfixed through one scene after another.

“He’s very curious — always looking for art and music,” said Marco’s mother, Tatiana Borjas, who lives in Battery Park City.

Leonardo Anzures, from Brooklyn, said he was amazed that he and his 3 and 9-year-old daughters could follow the plot. Watching live Shakespeare, Anzures said, is “much better than staying home and watching TV.”

Some of the passersby, though, were less enamored of the soliloquies and semantic games.

“It’s a bit ridiculous that it’s in the middle of a walkway,” said a suit-wearing Royal Bank of Canada worker who did not give his name. He said he had seen more than enough of the play during the past month of open rehearsals, and the intrusion was getting annoying.

The only other critique Thursday night came from Jonathan Schoenfelder, 21, who noted that Burdman had taken many liberties with the classic text — rearranging the scenes and cutting out more than half of the five-hour play.

“It’s a radical intervention,” said Schoenfelder, who was visiting from Boise, Idaho. “I want to see if it pays off.”

Burdman’s version maintained the moments of levity that dot Hamlet’s path to demise, and the visual gags and potent insults frequently got the audience laughing. But as the evening wore on and the World Financial Center emptied, the characters’ descent into madness gave the scene changes a feeling of frenetic desperation. By the end of the night, when Hamlet and nearly everyone else lay dead on the marble floor, the grand office building felt desolate and eerie.

Burdman said he planned the timing of the play to coincide with the quieting of the building, the drama growing as the distractions diminish.

“It’s a transformation of the space,” Burdman said. “It’s a way to experience the World Financial Center in a way you’ve never seen it before.”

“Hamlet” (artsworldfinancialcenter.com) is free and will be performed April 8-11 and 13-18 starting at 7 p.m. Meet in the World Financial Center courtyard near Starbucks (enter at 220 Vesey St.). Burdman recommends comfortable walking shoes and a pillow to sit on; the staff will assist those with physical disabilities.