Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet: All Briefs, Not Enough Prince

Not to be. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Hamlet is, needless to say, a trove of memorable speeches, not the least of which is the prince’s request of the actors who’ve arrived to perform The Murder of Gonzago, the play-within-the-play.

Admonishing these rowdy thesps, Hamlet asks them to “speak the speech…trippingly on the tongue.” He warns them not to “saw the air too much with your hand, but use all gently.” He doesn’t want “to hear a periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very tatters, to split the ears of the groundlings.”

In Sam Gold’s version of Hamlet, now running Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, Hamlet conveys these stage directions to the actors, but the director does not convey the message to Oscar Isaac as the title character, arguably the most famous role in all of dramatic literature.

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So romantically emotional as Romeo in Central Park 12 years ago, Isaac speaks the speeches haltingly and/or hurriedly on the tongue, sawing the air so much with his hand that shards of air fall noisily to the floor. Isaac tears any number of passions to tatters, littering the playing area as if air were crumpled candy wrappers. Gold, moreover, has Isaac spend much time speaking, sawing and tattering in black underwear. To establish Hamlet’s madness? Unclear.

Sometimes Isaac maintains his frantic interpretation until he is unintelligible. He does slow down when asking himself “to be or not to be,” but he begins the soliloquy supine, like a soprano getting ready to sing “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca. Then, whenever Isaac darts around, his vocal delivery is all collarbone-up; his physicality is all flailing arms, torso, legs, with little, if anything, coming from inside. This play has, among other emotional stops, the young man’s deep grief over his father’s death, his concern for his mother, and his true feelings for Ophelia. When at Ophelia’s grave, he holds her and declares his abiding love for her, the declaration comes as a surprise, for while Isaac may impress the crowd with shallow histrionics, ultimately he lets the Bard down.

Other achieve an unfortunate end as well. Gold, who trims the cast to nine — Charlayne Woodard as Gertrude, Ritchie Coster as Claudius, Peter Friedman as Polonius, Gayle Rankin as Ophelia (in a dress resembling a ruched black plastic garbage bag), Anatol Yusef as Laertes, Keegan-Michael Kay as Horatio, Matthew Saldivar as Guildenstern, and Roberta Colindrez as Rosencrantz — puts them all in Kaye Voyce’s sorta-modern garb.

Only Woodard and Yusef rise above the acting level to which Gold reduces this tragedy. Read your program bios to be reminded that these performers have done well in many other outings. Woodard, in a purple party-hostess outfit, is convincingly shocked at Hamlet’s behavior when he accosts her in her bedroom; her Ophelia-drowning speech is performed so trippingly on the tongue that the audience, starved for authenticity in emotion, may weep like the mentioned willows. In the best two or three minutes of the night, Woodard’s aria is followed by Yusef’s reaction as Laertes learns of his sister’s demise. His display of grief is genuine because, unlike Isaac, Yusef underplays from start to finish.

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Friedman, who never offers a deficient characterization, is only so-so as Polonius but comes into his own as the Gravedigger. Other actors double in such sudden switches that from time to time it’s a challenge to figure out who’s who. At the end, though, it’s clear that Key (of the beloved Key and Peele) is saying the closing lines as Hamlet’s best friend Horatio — not as Fortinbras, who’s been edited out along with all reference to nation-versus-nation politics.

But back to Hamlet on his back. After an in-the-dark opening scene, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father is on his back as well. Gold positions other actors that way, too — it’s clearly his favorite trope but the point he attempts to get across remains obscure.

This Hamlet must also be one of the ugliest on record. David Zinn is the designer, but he hasn’t had much to design. The centerpiece is a basic metal-and-wood table, first covered by flowers. (Are they intended to foreshadow Ophelia’s rosemary and rue?) Table now appear to be a Gold favorite — this one greatly resembles the one center stage last spring in his travesty of a Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie.

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Zinn covers the floor with maroon carpeting, but when Ophelia carries in large planters from which she pours dirt, the mess stays put. The upstage wall, also maroon, has doors in it; behind one is a toilet. At one point, Polonius is discovered on it, responding to a call of nature like President Johnson famously did. Later, Hamlet exits the toilet with a sanitary cover around his neck like a fragile armor breastplate.

The thing about Gold is that so often he can be brilliantly creative. His partnership with the playwright Annie Baker (The Flick, John, The Aliens) are major contemporary theater achievements. Currently, A Doll’s House, Part 2, on Broadway, attests to his prowess.

Those are all new plays. Maybe he should stick to them rather that put new wine into old theater bottles. The most fascinating outcome of this Hamlet is that by the time it concludes nearly four hours later, it is less the classic play known by the world than the fever dream of a prep school boy. A precocious one.