While Hollywood is hitting Peak TV, New York theater is somewhere near Peak Hamlet. In the past year alone, we’ve gotten Robert Icke’s sleek and modern Hamlet at the Park Avenue Armory, Thomas Ostermeier’s muddy and German Hamlet at the BAM Next Wave Festival, and James Ijames’s revised southern-cookout version, Fat Ham. Expand the scope further and you could include the opera at the Met and pre-pandemic forays to Elsinore starring Ruth Negga and Oscar Isaac. That’s fine. There’s plenty to explore in the messy, melancholy classic, but if you’re going to keep staging the play, you’d better bring something new. That’s where Kenny Leon and the Public Theater, which is Danish double-dipping after producing Fat Ham, falters in its Shakespeare in the Park offering this summer. Although led by an able Ato Blankson-Wood, this is a Hamlet that, like its main character, can’t make up its mind about what it wants to say or do.
Leon brings Hamlet to the present-day American South. As the show begins, the dead King Hamlet receives a military funeral, and his portrait in formal marine dress hangs at the back of the set, sternly watching over the rest of the play. The director is picking up a lot of the ideas he deployed in his 2019 take on Much Ado About Nothing, which cast an ensemble of Black actors led by Danielle Brooks, set the action in present-day Georgia, and encouraged awareness of what race can bring to the text. This time, Leon similarly struck place names from the script (you won’t hear anyone mention Denmark or even Elsinore) and brought things nearer to the present day — specifically 2021, according to the Public’s notes — and there’s a bit of business with actors donning and removing surgical masks. Much Ado had a Stacey Abrams 2020 campaign sign onstage; Beowulf Boritt’s designs for the Hamlet set also include a Stacey Abrams 2020 sign, though this time it’s half buried in the ground as if displaced by a lightning strike at the side of the stage.
The point, perhaps, is that the pandemic and protests over police violence in 2020 made it all the more obvious that something is rotten in America. But Hamlet is a big, ungainly play on its own terms, and when Leon tries to wrap it around all these contemporary signifiers, it resists bending toward his interpretation. Hamlet’s family, John Douglas Thompson as Claudius and Lorraine Toussaint as Gertrude, is Black and styled in Jessica Jahn’s modern costumes as a luxe, lowercase-c conservative military household. It’s an interpretation that, like Fat Ham’s, makes you aware of the masculine expectations for the young prince, but it’s hard to graft the dynamics of a royal court onto of-the-moment American politics and say anything clearly. Daniel Pearce’s Polonius is a Colonel Sanders–style white Southern fop; there’s room here for something about white resentment, especially as Nick Rehberger’s Laertes is styled as a lit bro who could plausibly go alt-right, but Leon doesn’t pursue it thoroughly. When Laertes returns late in the play to seek revenge for Polonius’s murder, the characters briefly bar a door with an American flag — an image that invokes the January 6 insurrection — but the ensuing duel is staged more as a collegial bit of fencing than anything approaching genuine hatred. This production also lacks a Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince who captures the castle in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and who might have been a more plausible figure on which to hang an allegory about a coup attempt.
The production’s endeavors to find something outside the text to hang a message on also muddle the inward-directed tendency of the characters, especially Hamlet’s. We can’t hear him think well because the direction is speaking over him, telling us to focus on something else. Leon deploys projections and a booming audio effect for Hamlet’s encounters with his father’s ghost (recorded dialogue by Samuel L. Jackson) with Blankson-Wood mouthing along to the messages as if possessed. But the bombastic staging doesn’t clarify how Hamlet feels about this revenge task, especially when the text’s early-modern theological questions about salvation and damnation have been so thoroughly brushed aside. Hamlet’s soliloquies often turn on internal doubts that, because Leon so underemphasizes them, lack a solid place to get their footing. Blankson-Wood has a crisp delivery, but he struggles to convey that he is thinking onstage instead of just reciting lines. He’s chasing after the prince’s curlicuing motivations from one scene to the next instead of leading us through the labyrinth. When Hamlet holds his knife above Claudius, about to strike him down in prayer, the only reason Blankson-Wood doesn’t go in for the kill seems to be simply because that’s not what happens in the play.
He and the production do improve, however, when it comes to Hamlet’s play-acting side. The hero’s a theater aficionado who gives notes to the players once they arrive at the castle; in this version, those performers are styled as a star rapper and his entourage with Hamlet as the eager, wealthy — but also relatively dorky— fanboy organizing a private gig. Here, Leon pokes at an engaging strand of class dynamics and includes new songs by Jason Michael Webb. The lyrics could use further revision — “Wanna chop ’em like Priam, stick ’em wit da pointy end,” goes one line — but there’s something to the idea that, in music and in art, Hamlet sees a way to communicate that gets at what he can’t express with his words, words, words. Yet Leon doesn’t capitalize on the possibility. He inserts a lot of music throughout the production, starting off with a praise team singing Ecclesiastes at the funeral and ending with the company reprising a bit of that song about Hecuba, “I could tell you a tale, Gods cry / Gods cry, Gods cry, I could make the Gods cry.” With Hamlet and the players, those insertions are intriguing. At other times, such as when Solea Pfeiffer’s Ophelia sings, it mostly serves to remind you that Pfeiffer, best known for musicals, has a great voice.
Like many members of Hamlet’s ensemble, Pfeiffer works hard to make an impression without a sense of where the character fits in with everything else. During Ophelia’s collapse into madness, I could feel Pfeiffer reaching out and trying to engage the audience by going big. She’s got shreds of something to build a character around — Ophelia’s done up in braids and music-festival-ready flowered dresses, as in the Millais painting by way of Instagram — but not a complete thought. The costumes, the surgical masks, the SUV parked on the side of the stage: All point toward potential contemporary relevance that progressively overwhelms the performances. Leon keeps gesturing to ideas that a version of Hamlet might speak to, but in doing so, he forgets whatever specific ideas his Hamlet might articulate.
Hamlet is at the Delacorte Theater through August 6.