The first problem is the attractive modern setting by Walt Spengler of the wedding breakfast of Claudius and Gertrude with a huge cake in the background. The issue is that the table and the cake remain on stage for the entire evening, a terrible distraction. Does this palace have only one public room? The next situation is that Pendleton has chosen to cut both ghost scenes so that the audience is never told that Gertrude had an affair with her brother-in-law or that Claudius poisoned his brother Old Hamlet. The problem that this creates is that young Hamlet has to be played as paranoid as we have no way of knowing what the off-stage ghost told him, nor do we know what is bothering him when he acts so badly to his mother and step-father.
Next the casting of Harris Yulin and Penelope Allen as Claudius and Gertrude doesn’t work; they may be excellent actors but they are too old to play these roles now. If you read the play carefully, Gertrude can’t be more than 44-45 due to Hamlet’s Oedipal conflict. His mother must still be so young and desirable that he has illicit feelings for her. This does not occur if she is played as his grandmother. Also Claudius was Old Hamlet’s younger brother and as such more desirable to Gertrude than her older husband. Hamlet also resents Claudius becoming the king on his father’s death because Claudius is young enough that Hamlet, named his heir, will probably never get to become king. If Claudius is a senior citizen, then Hamlet would have no such fear.
Performing Hamlet with only ten actors means that several actors will have to play many parts. In fact, Daniel Morgan Shelley and Jim Broaddus each play five characters, while Scott Parkinson plays four. When they turn up, you never know who they will be next. The most ridiculous moment in the evening is when Parkinson and Shelley leave the stage as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after announcing the arrival of the Players from Wittenberg, turn around and they are the Players from Wittenberg. It almost makes your head reel.
Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras, the Prince of Denmark are all the same age so that they are dramatic foils: Laertes and Fortibras show us what Hamlet could have done to revenge the death of his father, rather than what he chooses to do, and their age is given in the play as 29. With his greying hair, Glenn Fitzgerald does not look 29. However, he is actually the same age as Sarsgaard but looks much older. He also is not believable as the brother of Ophelia played by young Lisa Joyce. Additionally, two-time Tony Award winner Stephen Spinella looks too young to be the aged and doddering courtier Polonius that Claudius inherited from his brother. However, decked out in a beard and playing him like an older man, he is quite believable. All of Fortinbras’ lines have been cut so when he appears in the final moments, a good deal of the audience will not know who he is.
And what of this production’s Hamlet? Peter Sarsgaard has been a very variable actor on stage. His Trigorin in the most recent Broadway production of The Seagull was too bland. His Dr. Astrov in CSC’s revival of Uncle Vanya was too antic to be credible. Yet his Vershinin in their Three Sisters was absolutely brilliant. Here, aside from the fact that he has to play paranoid so that we have no clue as to what the ghost told him, he waves his hands about in both large and small gestures that are quite distracting.
Pendleton has also staged the play so that during Hamlet’s soliloquies other people are sitting at the table center stage. While the audience is supposed to be listening to his inner thoughts, what crosses your mind instead is “Are the people on stage supposed to be hearing this?” which sabotages Sarsgaard’s work. When it is time to attempt to kill the king while he is praying, Sarsgaard has been directed to go to the table and grab a dinner knife which doesn’t look like much of a threat and so the moment becomes laughable rather than sinister. Using a high-pitched tenor, Sarsgaard makes Hamlet more fey than usual. Ultimately, the portrayal is an eccentric failure.
Among the supporting cast, both Yulin and Allen are very stiff, while Joyce’s mad scenes are characterized by her throwing her hair around. Fitzgerald’s Laertes is simply petulant. Austin Jones’ Horatio is a cipher, while Parkinson’s fourth appearance as the Gravedigger is quite amusing. Constance Hoffman’s contemporary formal clothes (except for those of the antic Hamlet) are excellent in the first scene. However, when Gertrude is still wearing her silver lamé wedding dress in the final fencing scene four months later, something has gone wrong. The lighting by Justin Townsend works only partly in disguising the rest of the set at times when we shouldn’t be seeing it, for example for the scenes with the guards on the parapet and the graveyard scene. In Spangler’s set design, too often characters are seen sitting around the playing area on white sectional sofas when they shouldn’t be anywhere near the action.
It is hard to call the new Classic Stage Company production of Hamlet even a partial success. All one can say after this misguided production is better luck next time, and let’s recall some of CSC’s earlier triumphs.
Hamlet (through May 10, 2015)
Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call, 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.classicstage.org
Running time: three hours and 20 minutes including one intermission