Michael Stuhlbarg and Lauren Ambrose in Hamlet
(© Michal Daniel)
Michael Stuhlbarg and Lauren Ambrose in Hamlet
(© Michal Daniel)
In one of the many famous Hamlet arias, the scheming hero asks the members of a traveling acting troupe to "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you-trippingly on the tongue." He also advises the ensemble not to "saw the air too much with your hand" and goes on to say, "It offends me to the soul to hear a robust, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters." But it's odd that Michael Stuhlbarg, now playing the title role in the Public Theater's abysmal Hamlet should be handing out any thespian tips at all.

Indeed, Stuhlbarg speaks just about every line as untrippingly as he could; saws the air so often that were there actual wood on the stage he could have stacked enough to build a log cabin; and consistently stamps his right foot as if he were not a young man devastated at his father's murder but a five-year-old throwing a tantrum over being denied a cookie.

However, when a usually superlative actor like Stuhlbarg is so off the mark and when other traditionally first-rate performers -- including Sam Waterston as Polonius, Andre Braugher as Claudius, Margaret Colin as Gertrude, David Harbour as Laertes, and Jay O. Saunders in three roles -- are uniformly awkward and excessive, the unifying problem looks suspiciously like Oskar Eustis' direction. Only Lauren Ambrose, a treat last year as Juliet, keeps her integrity intact and manages to deliver a touching and altogether real Ophelia.

Taking his cue from the words "battlement" and "sterile promontory" in the script, Eustis unfolds the action around a downstage eternal flame meant to commemorate the elder Hamlet and in front of David Korins' metal set, what looks like both a battlement and a battleship, which it becomes in one sequence. There's plenty of high-decibel noise, provided by Acme Sound Designers, who furthermore make free with explosions to underscore the threat Fortinbras' forces pose as they near the rotting Denmark state. As for the time-frame, it looks like a kind of surreal 1950's, thanks in part to the Balenciaga-like coats and gowns costume designer Ann Hould-Ward puts on Gertrude and the bowler hats she assigns to Rosencranz (Hoon Lee) and Guildenstern (Greg McFadden).

The most welcome mitigating factor in this melee turns out to be Basil Twist's puppets. I'm not being facetious when I say the best acting in this hammy Hamlet comes from the marionettes appearing in "The Murder of Gonzago." This is an unusually outstanding and marvelous subtle rendition of the short play Hamlet stages to "catch the conscience of the king."

Sadly, matters return to their previously sorry state during the final-scene sword fight (choreographed by Thomas Schall) in which the rigged contest-to-the-death has none of the grace associated with the sport, but looks more like two hippos let loose with out-sized swizzle sticks. Like much else of this Hamlet, it prompts one to want to literally cry out "Oh, woe is me!"