With all references to Denmark, France and England cut from the text, this tragedy has an immediacy for our time that it usually lacks. Along with Montana Levi Blanco’s contemporary costumes are such items as backpacks, smart phones, switchblades and hoodies, this Hamlet could take place here and now. The audience sits on all four sides of the black box Shiva Theater and is never more than three rows away from the action. The actors make use of this closeness and work off of the audience, talking directly to them, sitting next to them, including them in the play.
Katherine Akiko Day’s scenic design uses the minimum of furniture (a chair, a bench, a coffin) which allows the performance to proceed at a breakneck speed. The play begins with a pantomimed scene of the funeral of Old Hamlet, father to the title character, which lets the audience know the backstory to the drama. Enacted to drumming by Christopher Ryan Grant (who also plays several of the minor characters), this musical score by Imani Uzuri, sometimes barely heard, sometimes loud, recurs at strategic moments of the plot adding to the tension of this revenge play.
In the title role Chukwudi Iwuji is dynamic and athletic, giving us a Hamlet who is as much a man of action as a thinker. The cuts in the text only serve to emphasize this as a play in which a prince acts to take revenge on those responsible for the death of his father – his step-father/uncle Claudius and Queen Gertrude who has married his uncle on untimely death of her husband. Not only does Iwuji make Hamlet’s soliloquies in which we hear his inner thoughts meaningful and cogent, along with emotionally appropriate hand gestures, he connects with the audience on all four sides as if confiding in us.
As his treacherous uncle, Timothy D. Stickney (who also plays the eerie Ghost of Old Hamlet) is oily, politic and shrewd while Orlagh Cassidy’s Queen Gertrude is imperious and peremptory until Hamlet takes her down a peg in their private scene together. Kristolyn Lloyd, who also provides haunting off stage singing, is a suitably confused Ophelia rejected by Hamlet without an explanation and driven to madness. Jeffrey Omura is a sympathetic self-effacing Horatio, Hamlet’s former classmate and confidant.
The rest of the accomplished cast plays multiple roles in skillful and often amusing doubling. Christian DeMarais is a hilariously obtuse Guildenstern as well as a hot-headed and violent Laertes. Natalie Woolams-Torres appears as a cagey, quick-witted Rosencrantz and earlier as a forceful Marcellus. Musician Grant demonstrates tremendous versatility in a multitude of roles including the guard Bernardo, the Player King and the Pirate. Both DeMarais and Woolams-Torres appear as well in totally different guises as the actors in support of the Player King. David Pearce is amusing as the pompous, wordy adviser Polonius, the jesting Gravedigger, and the dandified courtier Osric.
The single disadvantage of director Patricia McGregor’s approach is that in cutting so much text, the events of the play seem to occur one on top of each other, making the play a bit melodramatic, and a good deal of character development is sacrificed by the way. However, with dangerous-looking fight direction by Lisa Kopitsky and intriguing movement by Paloma McGregor, this is a Hamlet that lives up to its mission to be accessible and entertaining to all, those who know the play well and those seeing it for the first time.
Hamlet (through October 9, 2016)
The Public Theatre’s Mobile Unit
Shiva Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission