“Frailty, thy name is woman”
Not in this Hamlet.
Irony exists on several levels in Shakespeare’s tragedy, currently in performances in the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. There’s the situational irony of the audience knowing what the characters don’t know, there’s the dramatic irony of Hamlet knowing what other characters don’t know, and then there’s the slightly delightful irony of this critic knowing that in a show which speaks so poorly of women, the two principal females are the strongest members of the cast.
The tragedy of Hamlet is a familiar one to anyone who has taken an English class in high school. The Prince of Denmark is told by the ghost of his father that his uncle Claudius murdered his father, the king, and then married the widowed queen less than two months later. In attempting to discover the truth and avenge the murder, Hamlet pretends to be insane. The pretending quickly disappears into actual insanity, resulting in numerous deaths, including Hamlet’s own.
While the story is a familiar one that is revisited frequently, due no doubt to its great dramatic potential, it can never truly be dull – that is, if the cast gives the characters enough investment and depth to make them actual people worth caring about for more than three hours, instead of echoes of past Shakespeare performances. Sadly, this cast fails to accomplish that.
Cast in the title role Michael Stuhlbarg does shockingly little with what may be one of the greatest and most challenging parts in all of Shakespeare’s creation. His Hamlet is sulky, silent and, to quote another audience member, sniveling. The fury that propels the great lengths that Hamlet goes to is missing. When Hamlet should be fuming, he is fumbling. When he should be roaring with rage, he is sulking in the corner. This rage seems to be found instead in Horatio, played by Kevin Carroll, who is supposed to function as the voice of reason amidst the chaos in Denmark. Hamlet’s best friend, who witnesses all of the Prince’s mistakes and miscalculations, while commenting calmly on them from a distance, is an awkward, misshapen character who doesn’t seem to know where he really stands on things. In the opening scenes, when the ghost appears to the men, Horatio yells more than Hamlet – and even that isn’t very much.
The same can be said of King Claudius (Andre Braugher) and Laertes (David Harbour). Both men possess energy that is tangible in the audience, but this energy is misdirected and bounces about the stage without settling on any true focus. Sam Waterson’s Polonius possesses more single-mindedness in his role, when he is not struggling to remember his lines, which he did several times at last Thursday’s performance.
The cast finds its saving grace in Lauren Ambrose’s Ophelia. Ambrose, who played Juliet last summer, possesses an almost unearthly ease with the language of Shakespeare, reciting her lines glibly and gracefully while also developing Ophelia into a compelling character. Ambrose’s Ophelia is a wise, somewhat sarcastic young woman who takes her brother’s and father’s long-winded speeches with a much-needed grain of salt. She is still innocent, however – maybe that is why they insist on dressing her in pink in every scene? – but behind that wide smile is a bit of wisdom. If only it was enough to outwit Hamlet. As Ambrose takes Ophelia into the realms of insanity, she somehow strikes the balance between dramatic and pathetic and maintains it throughout a truly heartbreaking scene. This Ophelia is so likeable, and so pitiable, that her death seemed like the first true tragedy of the night.
Accompanying Ophelia as the strongest members of the cast is Margaret Colin as Queen Gertrude. The possessor of a straight-backed, regal presence and a husky, strident voice, Colin’s Gertrude is almost unbelievable in this production of Hamlet. Clad in sensible, yet stylish, skirt suits, and delegated to the background of many scenes, she still seems much too smart to be so easily duped by so many men. At times this critic hoped she would seize the crown and call the shots. This Queen would be more at home discussing diplomacy with Michelle Obama than dinner parties with Laura Bush.
Current members of political society would most likely look at home on this production’s set, a starkly minimalist stage reminiscent of a military fortress. This set, however, does nothing to enhance the show, despite the military subplot of Hamlet’s foil, Fortinbras. Like everything other decision in the show, the set was clearly made with good intentions but fails to blend cohesively. This remains true until the very last moment of the show, when the inexplicable murder of Horatio closes the production with a bang. But a whimper would have been more appropriate.