To flee or not to flee?
That is the question that occurred to me during the confounding and enervating “Hamlet” — a nearly 4-hour endurance test that flops, even with a great Oscar Isaac persuasively pouring his heart out as the depressed Dane.
It’s not that this modern-dress take on Shakespeare’s masterwork is too long. That’s a given. So it’s superfluous — though cute — when Keegan-Michael Key, who plays Hamlet’s pal Horatio and other roles, gives a pre-show speech telling theatergoers to “call the babysitter.”
What makes the production at the Public Theater through Sept. 3 such a long sit is that beyond strong work by Isaac and others in the cast, there’s so little takeaway in this staging by in-demand director Sam Gold.
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What’s most memorable is that Isaac, a global star thanks to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” spends so much time on stage in tone-on-tone black tee and underpants. You could imagine recasting him in other roles — like, say, Bottom. Or Macbutt.
Presumably the fanny focus is about thematic commentary. Hamlet’s beloved father has been killed by his uncle Claudius (Ritchie Coster), who’s married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Charlayne Woodard). In a world clouded by such betrayals and lies, exposing oneself is a statement. Then again, the undies are a timid choice. There’ve been Hamlets who’ve doffed all their duds — and there’s one playing in Brooklyn next month.
The death scene of Ophelia (Gayle Rankin), which involves a garden hose, also stands out — but for the wrong reason. It’s laughable.
This cast has been streamlined to nine actors, so many play more than one part. Deft use of doubling or tripling actually serves the text — again, a world of duplicity and men with two faces. But it backfires here. The famous “Mousetrap” play-within-the-play scene in which Hamlet relies on actors to expose the evil that Claudius has done has never been less coherent due to multitasking actors. And pity poor Key, who’s been directed to go so over the top that you just have to look away.
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Otherwise, the show becomes a running reel of Gold’s go-to ideas. “Hamlet” begins in darkness, just like his “Othello.” Hamlet gives his “To be or not to be” speech while flat on his back — an image that mirrors “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” The set — table, chairs, toilet — could’ve come from his unsatisfying vision of “The Glass Menagerie.”
After his work on new works like “Fun Home” and “The Flick,” I’ll follow Gold anywhere. Alas, his “Hamlet” goes nowhere.
There’s something rotten in Denmark, indeed.
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