by JK Clarke
I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets. Just this year I count at least four. The productions have ranged from big budget and professional to small, communal affairs passing the hat after the show. As Hamlet is a play that can stand quite easily on its own, financial backing rarely has anything to do with show’s overall enjoyability. And, at the risk of stating the obvious, without a powerful actor in the title role there is no play. But when you have not only a stunning performance from the likes of Chukwudi Iwuji—who seems born to play the part—but a full cast of actors in their element, the full force of this, arguably the best play ever written, is overpowering. The various audiences throughout the boroughs, for whom this travelling production has been performing for the past month, should count themselves lucky for having seen such an impactful and spellbinding version of Hamlet. The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit has now arrived home at its East Village/Astor Place digs for a too brief run that ends October 9.
The story is familiar to most: the King of Denmark has died, and his wife has married his brother after a very brief period of mourning. When his closest friend, Horatio (Jeffrey Omura) tells him he is in town for his father’s funeral, wise-cracking Prince Hamlet chides, “I prithee do not mock me, fellow student,/ I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.” Hamlet’s bitterness is already entrenched, and he takes a jolt when Horatio tells him he has seen his father’s ghost. Horatio takes the prince to see for himself, whereupon the zombie-esque Ghost King (spectral Timothy D. Stickney) tells Hamlet he has been murdered by his very own brother, Claudius (stately Timothy D. Stickney) who has taken his crown and Queen (Gertrude, played with expert sternness by Orlagh Cassidy).
Where the title role is frequently played top-heavy with pathos, it also works straightforward and Iwuji absorbs the blows as we would: grief followed by stunned disbelief, then outrage. The famous soliloquies are a punch to the gut for us, his witnesses. When he laments, “oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt,” it’s a pain of loss many have felt. Then, when the betrayal is revealed, he’s in a new, compounded stage: “To be, or not to be? . . .” he wonders. Iwuji is a Hamlet who wants to die and leave a world turned upside down. But the fury of the betrayal and desire for revenge keeps him alive, as it would so many of us, the fallout be damned. Appropriately, for a production that’s introducing Hamlet to an audience who has never before seen Shakespeare—and some even who’ve never even attended a play—Iwuji’s Hamlet’s emotions are raw and direct.
The Public’s Mobile Unit Hamlet is, for practical reasons, a stripped down version of the original. Where some productions can run over three and a half hours, this one is a mere hour forty-five, and the costumes (Montana Levi Blanco) are simple, yet purposeful. The easily transportable set (Katherine Akiko Day) is a rug in the center of the room, and a large wooden box, put to multiple uses, along with various props as needed. All this because the play travels to community centers, homeless shelters, schools and even correctional facilities throughout the New York metropolitan region—a total of 18 different stops on the tour! And it’s the play’s mobility that makes its reliance on a stellar cast and precision direction (Patricia McGregor) paramount. Not only is Iwuji remarkable as always (as often noted here, e.g. his performances in the Public’s Antony and Cleopatra as well as Theatre For a New Audience’s stunning Tamburlaine), but enchanting and beautifully-voiced Kristolyn Lloyd is a terrific Ophelia, who makes a reasonable transition from playful to broken hearted in the course of a few scenes. Stickney’s dual roles as the Ghost and his usurper brother Claudius are formidable; and Orlagh Cassidy is a resolute Queen Gertrude who see her folly just a tad too late. And an absolute delight is Daniel Pearce’s brilliantly comical performances as doddering yet scheming father Polonius and the wisecracking Gravedigger, in which scenes he spars excellently with Iwuji.
And this is where I take issue with the Public. To end this run forever after two weeks in residence would be an actual tragedy. This team deserves an extended run with a fully-fleshed production. [Public Theater Artistic Director] Oskar Eustis, do you hear me? Turn this production into an Off-Broadway run with an eye toward Broadway! It’s been many seasons since a locally produced Shakespeare play has taken laurels, but this one could do it. It would give even more young people and Shakespeare novices the opportunity to see Hamlet performed in a way they’ll never forget and turn them into lovers of the Bard. Certainly the audiences on the show’s circuit knew what they had. As the Public’s Director of Special Artistic Projects (which oversees the Mobile Unit) Stephanie Ybarra told the audience before the show, one fan, an inmate at Riker’s, put it just right, “This play is lit!”
Hamlet. Through October 9, the final stop on the Mobile Unit Tour, at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette at Astor Place in the Village). www.publictheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus