playwright William Shakespeare
company Classic Stage Company
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