Austin Pendleton’s modern-dress Hamlet, playing at the Classic Stage Company through May 10, is daringly cast with an older Gertrude (Penelope Allen), hipster Hamlet (Peter Sarsgaard), and a ghost who remains in the ether. The director also presents formidable talents, such as Harris Yulin (Claudius) and Stephen Spinella (Polonius)—and his Ophelia is quirky and with tics enough to challenge a young Faye Dunaway (Lisa Joyce).  Pendleton appreciates the virtuosity of these actors, but he never really pushes them into harm’s way.  His intimate Hamlet is rarely dangerous physically or emotionally (an exception is Allen’s and Sarsgaard’s confrontation in Gertrude’s closet), and the black grandeur of the play goes missing.  If somewhere along the line, Pendleton realized that Hamlet was undirectable, he wouldn’t be the first to do so—his work presents as a German avant-garde production that is soft on the inside; really this is more of a favorite actors’ showcase, which the audience can snooze through.  Unfortunately, tired New Yorkers did, on the evening I saw it. A windy Polonius helps this along (no fault of Spinella, though) along with a very dark theatre and unfortunate electronic music, which sets the mood, but also puts everyone into delta.  It seems a mistake to cut the ghost’s lurid speech, which, early in the play, can act as a kick from the supernatural (and give important backstory). As I recall, Ingmar Bergman’s production was very aware of pacing, and used an early sex scene, highlighting the depravity of the Danish court—needless to say, everyone stayed awake.  The present version seems to use an idea from that production by having Ophelia appear at her own burial. 

Sarsgaard, in trying on an idiosyncratic interpretation–sometimes you can even imagine Pendleton giving him the line readings–does not so much inhabit his territory, as make the pentameter harder to understand.  This was also the fault of another celebrity-actor, Ethan Hawke, in the Lincoln Center production of Macbeth.  Perhaps the lesson is to go deeper into the roles, not just work hard to be different. Yulin’s fine Claudius ends on a what-the-hell moment out of drama-class exigencies. Due to his blocking, instead of being forced to drink poison, he simply throws it back, as if he’s needed a chaser. Allen is so unlike other Gertrudes that she may be worth the price of admission.  It’s interesting to see her elderly interpretation because both she and Claudius become sympathetic.  Whether or not that destroys a needed tension in the play, Allen’s moments of thick-throated anguish are compelling—even if you’re afraid she’ll slip in those heels.  Perhaps Pendleton thought Hamlet was so well known that it could be all about the actors he cares so much about. Unfortunately, the tragedy is a multi-tiered game of chess with an amateur. The prince's elders are not wrong with what needs to be given in this party after the party:  tough love.

HAMLET, directed by AUSTIN PENDLETON

With PENELOPE ALLEN, JIM BROADDUS, GLENN FITZGERALD, AUSTIN JONES, LISA JOYCE, SCOTT PARKINSON, PETER SARSGAARD, DANIEL MORGAN SHELLEY, STEPHEN SPINELLA, HARRIS YULIN

Scenic Design WALT SPANGLER
Costume Design CONSTANCE HOFFMAN
Lighting Design JUSTIN TOWNSEND
Original Music & Sound Design RYAN RUMERY
Fight Director JARED KIRBY

Press: MARC THIBODEAU, The Publicity Office 

Visit the Classic Stage Company: http://www.classicstage.org/season/productions/hamlet/ 

© 2015 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. 

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