26 June 2008

Yesterday I waited in line for five hours to see the Public Theater's production of Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park, and while I wouldn't say that the effort was wasted, the more I think about it, the more I end up feeling perplexed and disappointed. For most of its great length, this version of Hamlet is a fine one: Michael Stuhlbarg—although old for the part at 39—makes for a manic but lucid Hamlet; Sam Waterston and Jay O. Sanders are excellent as Polonius and the Ghost; and Lauren Ambrose—yes, her—is a perfect Ophelia. As far as the cast goes, the only real letdown is Andre Braugher's Claudius: I've been a huge fan of Braugher for years, but he fails to give the part any spark of inner life. As a character, Claudius is always outmatched by Hamlet, of course, but here, his presence barely seems to register on the other characters, much less the audience.

This isn't a fatal flaw. Up to the very last moment, this production of Hamlet is entertaining, engaging, and, best of all, beautifully spoken—it does perfect justice to the density and beauty of the text. And then...

The last ten seconds are a travesty. John Lahr describes the utterly baffling ending here, and does a nice job of expressing how bizarre and unmotivated it seems: "What is going on? Is this the end of history? Of storytelling? Are we on Candid Camera?" It's as if the last scene of The Departed had been accidentally spliced onto the end of the play. On its own terms, the ending is clever, but in context, it's so grossly miscalculated that it makes me question my lingering goodwill towards the rest of the production. Instead of leaving the theater with thoughts of Hamlet, Shakespeare, or anything else, the audience is compelled to discuss an infantile sick joke. It hijacks the entire play. If other directorial choices throughout the production had prepared us for it, I might feel differently, but as it stands, it feels utterly arbitrary. As such, it represents an incredible show of vanity on the part of the director, Oskar Eustis, who should have known better. As Hamlet says to the players: "That's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it."

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