Friday, April 17, 2015

Review: Hamlet at CSC

playwright  William Shakespeare

Hamlet  Peter Sarsgaard
Ophelia  Lisa Joyce
Claudius  Harris Yulin
Gertrude  Penelope Allen
Polonius  Stephen Spinella
Laertes  Glenn Fitzgerald
company  Jim Broaddus, Austin Jones, Scott Parkinson, Daniel Morgan Shelley

director  Austin Pendleton
set  Walt Spangler
costumes  Constance Hoffman
lights  Justin Townsend
music/sound  Ryan Rumery/Scapesound

Sarsgaard as Hamlet
There is no ghost in Hamlet. Usually the role would provide backstory for the plot, motivation for the lead, and most importantly, theatrical magic for the audience. In Austin Pendleton’s staging at CSC, however, the prince follows an invisible spirit offstage then circles back moments later with his course set for vengeance. Throughout this production, Pendleton isn’t just banking on his audience’s familiarity with the play, he’s demanding it. His staging only works (when it works at all) through prior knowledge. At times it even seems like a Hamlet in quotes, a sort of three-hour setpiece. It’s abstruse, remote, and finally inaccessible.

Pendleton sets Elsinore as a luxury wedding: a table center, a canopy of flowers overhead, a tiered cake upstage, banquettes and a bar in the voms. Presumably it’s the royal nuptials (although I wondered if it was Hamlet & Ophelia’s hypothetical one). The white-and-blue palate suggests a Scandinavian climate subliminally, but otherwise the design is abstract—we’re not meant to think this Hamlet is actually playing out at a swank catering hall. But by making the space wholly conceptual, Pendleton divides the plot from its playing, and strands some scenes without a sense of place. That’s okay for the soliloquies and the nunnery scene, but not for specific locations like Gertrude’s closet and Ophelia’s gravesite.

Peter Sarsgaard has worked with Pendleton twice before at CSC, and their prior collaborations suggested he was well-cast as Hamlet. In Vanya and Three Sisters he’d shown an inwardness of focus and a neurotic rumination that should fit this titanic role well. But Sarsgaard also has no experience with verse drama and that shows. Plays at self-reflection, he seems to get lost in the poetic syntax. He’ll murmur into his wine, muffling his words and masking his emotions, then he’ll suddenly swing into fustian mode. His Hamlet is mercurial and temperamental, yet watching him isn’t particularly interesting.

Lisa Joyce as Ophelia, Stephen Spinella as Polonius
The same goes for Harris Yulin and Penelope Allen as the royal couple. Their work must’ve stalled early in rehearsals, since their choices are dully conventional. The supporting cast shows some nuance (Scott Parkinson, as Rosencranz and the Gravedigger, is nimble with the word-play). But only Stephen Spinella and Lisa Joyce are actually absorbing. The early scene between Polonius and daughter is the first to elicit a reaction from the audience. Spinella’s rambling yet brisk “brevity is the soul of wit” speech is the evening’s high point. Joyce is one of the few actors I’ve seen who plays Ophelia as the protagonist of an entire subplot rather than as a supporting character in Hamlet’s tragedy. She traces a convincing arc in the role by suggesting that her stifled emotional response in the ‘nunnery’ scene, and not her father’s death, is the start of her mental unraveling.

That scene ends the first half, surprisingly. The play resumes with “Speak the speech”, which is a great way to regain the audience’s attention after intermission. Or it would be if Pendleton had otherwise shaped the play into a story. There’s no variation to the tone, which undercuts the pacing, and no focus on one scene—Claudius’ prayer, for instance—over another. Pendleton relies on the audience to remember the plot but offers nothing for our attention. A three-hour runtime is par for Hamlet, but this one feels longer.


CSC's Hamlet runs Mar 27 thru May 10 at 136 E. 13th St.

photos: Carol Rosegg

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with all except the Joyce as Ophelia remarks. My 14 year old daughter and I found her over-acting and the scene with Polonius would have been a good one since Stephen Spinella gave her full attention (and took downstage yielding upstage), but she descended into losing sense of the words and soap opera emotion. What a disappointment this show was and I had high hopes with the directors experience and setting. I think a third to half the audience walked out at intermission. The assumption that people knew the show, no ghost necessary was arrogant and also lead to trouble when every actor skipped over words, lines, got tripped up, left things out! If you had never read the play, you wouldn't have a clue as to what was going on. What a disappointment and waste of hard earned money. The seats were pricey....for this? Thanks Stephen Spinella, not all is compost.