Oscar Isaac returns to the stage in Sam Gold's new production of the Shakespearean tragedy at the Public Theater.
Oscar Isaac first burst onto the scene by playing Proteus and Romeo for the Public at the Delacorte Theatre more than a decade ago. In recent years, he's gone from romantic leading man to dark-edged badass star in films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Inside Llewyn Davis. In Sam Gold's new production of Hamlet, now running at the Public Theater, Isaac is more than up to the task of playing the Melancholy Dane. His performance in this butt-busting, nearly four-hour iteration of the greatest tragedy ever written is as irresistible as we want it to be. The rest is a strangely comedic interpretation of the play that finds Hamlet at one point lugging around a corpse and pretending it's not dead (a nod to the classic comedy film Weekend at Bernie's).
To a degree, this Hamlet is akin to Gold's recent Broadway deconstruction of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, which attempted to remove all instances of theatrical artifice to focus on the words and humanity of the characters. But the result is similar to Menagerie, making a classic play almost entirely inaccessible. While there are some extremely clever touches on Gold's part for those well-versed in the play, the uninitiated may have no idea what's going on.
Nine actors populate Gold's Hamlet, set in a vast and mostly empty maroon drawing room (the only piece of furniture initially visible on David Zinn's set is a wooden table). Eight of the actors (excluding Isaac) play multiple roles, but Kaye Voyce costumes them for their principal characters in outfits that they would wear on the street as if they were real people. Claudius (Richie Coster), who usurped the throne by killing his brother, King Hamlet, stalks the stage in a summery linen suit. After killing his brother, Claudius quickly marries Gertrude, the king's glamour-puss widow (costumed in an off-the-shoulder jumpsuit and heels). The dour, depressive Ophelia (Gayle Rankin), Hamlet's love interest, spends most of her time in an oversize boyfriend sweater that belongs to Hamlet.
For those who've never seen or read Hamlet, the doubling (and in some cases, tripling) is a large part of the problem in the crucial scenes. For instance, in the famous "Mousetrap" scene, in which Hamlet directs a traveling troupe of players to re-create the murder of his father in an attempt to "catch the conscience of the king," Gold has Woodard and Coster playing the theatrical stand-ins of Gertrude and Claudius, as Hamlet watches. Later, the now dead-from-suicide Ophelia and her murdered father Polonius (Peter Friedman, as nuanced in his everyman-ness as ever) appear as the gravediggers. Between the costumes and the multiple casting, it's impossible to distinguish one character from the other. But for those who know the text, these are ingenious, outside-the-box choices that do a thought-provoking job of deepening the material even further.
Gold also injects a great deal of slapstick humor into the drama. Keegan-Michael Key (of TV's Key and Peele) proves himself a natural in his New York theatrical debut as Hamlet's friend Horatio, though his overall impact is lessened by a humorous over-the-top death sequence that goes on for far longer than it should (unfortunately, brevity is not the soul of wit here). And then there's the Weekend at Bernie's moment, where Hamlet displaces an audience member in the front row so he can prop Polonius' murdered body into a seat in attempt to fool Claudius. These choices merely get in the way of all Gold manages to accomplish.
As for Isaac himself, he's exactly what we could want out of a Hamlet. It's a beautifully spoken performance, one that makes every single line as clear as contemporary English. He also encompasses a fiercely large emotional range that runs the gamut from confident to petulant, all eloquently expressed down to the letter. As to the question of Hamlet's madness, in Isaac's hands Hamlet is smart and cunning, two steps ahead of everyone onstage, until he's not anymore. This lucidity works wonders and makes up for the more questionable elements of the production.
It's worth the character confusion, the odd comedic choices, and all four hours, just to watch Isaac's expert performance. And that is our outrageous fortune.