EmptyVenue: The Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park, New York (Through June 29).
A "Hamlet" set in a contemporary military government is a reasonable concept in this day and age. But "Hamlet" needs more than a current idea: It needs well-paced staging and top-flight acting. The rendition from Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis fails to provide those basic ingredients.
Eustis' production unfolds against a white, metal-studded wall that resembles a military prison. A black metal catwalk along the top looks ideal for gun-toting guards. Wide doors slide open and clang shut to admit Denmark's new ruler, Claudius (Andre Braugher), who sports more medals than a North Korean general. It's no wonder that Laertes (a miscast David Harbour) can't wait to get to France.
Enter Hamlet (Michael Stuhlbarg), who arrives, in a bit of directorial interpolation, at the top of the show, carrying a worn suitcase.
Clearly this slight man dressed in black does not fit in with the military crowd. But instead of a contrast between a poetic intellectual and a bunch of thugs, we get a Hamlet who rants during some of Shakespeare's most eloquent soliloquies and plays the mad prince (sort of channeling Robin Williams) long after the text suggests otherwise.
It testifies to the lack of fire in this slow, three-hour-plus production that, when Hamlet finally kills Claudius and dies himself, we feel neither accomplishment nor loss.
Our interest and affection goes instead to the secondary characters. Sam Waterston, who once played Hamlet in the park, takes a detour from "Law & Order" to give a delightful performance as the garrulous diplomat Polonius. Jay O. Sanders makes a dignified Ghost, a gently paternal Player King and finally a wonderfully caustic Gravedigger.
As for the women, Lauren Ambrose (last summer's Juliet in the park) brings openness and strength to Ophelia and makes the transition from rejected lover to grieving, mad daughter believable and poignant. That good actress Margaret Colin looks at sea as Gertrude -- as though she'd rather be anyplace other than this production of "Hamlet" -- is an outlook with which we were tempted to agree.
Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Christopher Bonewitz, Andre Braugher, Bruce Cannon, Matt Carlson, Kevin Carroll, Margaret Colin, W. Tre Davis, Emily Decola, David Harbour, Stephen James King, Hoon Lee, Dana Lyn, Piter Marek, Greg McFadden, Julio Monge, Paul O'Brien, Erin Orr, Gilbert Owuor, Jay O. Sanders, Michael Schupbach, Miriam Silverman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Waterston. Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward. Scenic Design: David Korins. Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski.