Off-Broadway Review: HAMLET (The Public at Delacorte)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on July 5, 2023

in Theater-New York


There may be something rotten in the state of Denmark, but there’s something enthralling on the stage at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. In The Public Theater’s latest Free Shakespeare In the Park offering of Hamlet, director Kenny Leon and his superb cast have delivered a riveting interpretation for 2023 that doesn’t water down the text or the story. There are some surface changes and a subtle streamlining of script that focus the play more on the family dynamic and less on national politics. The more obvious accommodations for a modern audience work well, especially the First Player’s speeches being performed mostly as spoken word. Due to the engaging acting and text work by the entire cast, this modern-ish production is an easy to follow, true to form telling of Hamlet that is moving, exciting, thoughtful and entertaining.

Ato Blankson-Wood
The Company

Just two months after the mysterious death of his highly regarded father King Hamlet, young Prince Hamlet has to witness his mother, Queen Gertrude, marry his father’s brother Claudius, who immediately usurps Hamlet’s rightful throne and crowns himself king. This rushed union, viewed as incest in that society, is also repellent to the young prince. Feeling powerless to change his new situation, the ghost of his dead father soon appears to Hamlet. The royal apparition reveals that Claudius is his murderer and charges his grieving son with avenging his death. This sets Hamlet on a course of questioning his existence, his perceptions, his relationships and the world at large – culminating in a bloody pile of bodies because, you know, Shakespeare.

Daniel Pearce and Ato Blankson-Wood
John Douglas Thompson, Solea Pfeiffer, Nick Rehberger, Laughton Royce

Moved from Denmark to modern-day Atlanta (are there no other upscale, African- American enclaves besides Atlanta?), director Leon opens his exploration not with soldiers on a rampart but mourners at King Hamlet’s funeral. This opening soon morphs into the first court scene. It’s a surprising and accessible move that puts the focus immediately on the family and nicely introduces the main characters. Leon’s staging is reliably straightforward from then on and keeps any further modernizing gimmicks to a minimum (with the exception of the ghost becoming a body-possessing demon or something). This leaves space for his impressive cast to do what they do best.

Lorraine Toussaint and John Douglas Thompson

As Hamlet, Ato Blankson-Wood again proves himself to be one of the best, young, Shakespearean actors working today. Audiences may remember his wonderful, singing “Orlando” in The Public’s summer production of As You Like It in 2022. There are no solos for him in this outing but the inner life he reveals through Shakespeare’s text makes his words sing anyway. His Hamlet is a mass of contradictions – inert yet active, confused yet clear-eyed, funny yet deadly serious. The pain of his youthful ideals crumbling in the face of compromising reality offers an apt illustration of what many youth may be feeling today.

Greg Hildreth and Ato Blankson-Wood

John Douglas Thompson as Claudius and Lorraine Toussaint as Gertrude are both imposing, royal and in love. Thompson effectively reveals the rot underneath Claudius’ charming exterior very slowly, culminating with his terrific monologue in the church. After his very honest self-reflection, it’s chilling to witness how quickly he returns to the business at hand. Toussaint is a luminous actress and brings real strength and caring to her Gertrude. Her struggle to see everything as fine even though she instinctively knows something is up is fascinating to witness. Daniel Pearce is hilarious and annoying as Polonius (as well he should be) and Nick Rehberger is a stalwart and heroic Laertes. And Solea Pfeiffer is an eye-opening Ophelia. Much stronger in mindset and awareness than often portrayed, this Ophelia is all the more heartbreaking when circumstances finally drive her to ruin. Also, Pfeiffer possesses an outstanding singing voice that the production utilizes in hauntingly impactful ways. And Greg Hildreth shines comedically, making the most of his time as the Gravedigger.

Ato Blankson-Wood, Mitchell Winter, and Brandon Gill
Warner Miller and Ato Blankson-Wood

There’s been many productions of Hamlet over the years and, no doubt, there will be many more. However, this is the rare, modernized staging in which the conceptual updates help illuminate Shakespeare’s play for the audience, not diminish it. And this show’s staging, casting and design (kudos to Jessica Jahn’s costumes, Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design and Jeff Sugg’s projection design) seem to invite anyone to find themself reflected in this world. Which may be the best update of all.

The Company
Lorraine Toussaint, Nick Rehberger, and John Douglas Thompson

photos by Joan Marcus

Public Theater
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Tues – Sun at 8pm
opened June 28, 2023
ends on August 6, 2023
for info and free ticket distribution, visit The Public

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