Review: To Be or Not to Be at the Public’s ‘Hamlet’ in Central Park? 

Singing! Rapping! Demonic possession! Kenny Leon's direction of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy has welcome, lively touches, but overall the staging feels undercooked.

Greg Hildreth and Ato Blankson-Wood in ‘Hamlet’ at The Delacorte Theater. Joan Marcus

Hamlet | 2hrs 45mins. One intermission. | Delacorte Theater | Enter at 86th St and Central Park West | 212-967-7555

Those who have seen many (too many) Hamlets over the years will notice that Fortinbras has been cut from the version now at Shakespeare in the Park. Fortinbras is the son of Norway’s King Fortinbras, who was killed on the battlefield by King Hamlet of Denmark. As Hamlet begins, Hamlet Sr. is dead (poisoned), Claudius has seized his brother’s crown and wife, and Hamlet is moping around. As these court politics unfold, there’s an external threat to Denmark: war. Fortinbras seeks revenge for his father. We learn this in the first scene, which director Kenny Leon skips. Goodness knows that Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy is also his longest (4,167 lines), but this excision creates a political void. 

What fills the gap? To the right of Beowulf Boritt’s deconstructed set (suburbia after an earthquake) there’s a campaign poster that has fallen off a sheared-off façade and sticks in the earth. “STACEY ABRAMS 2020” the sign reads. Immediately, you’re transported back to Leon’s all-Black 2019 Much Ado About Nothing also at the Delacorte. The sign was prominently displayed on Leonato’s mansion, a cheeky, optimistic gesture in an election year. Fizzy, romantic, and packed with laughs, Much Ado was smartly updated and deeply satisfying. This Hamlet is not. The director does himself no favors by inviting comparisons. 

Daniel Pearce and Ato Blankson-Wood in ‘Hamlet’ at The Delacorte Theater. Joan Marcus

There’s another comparison, this one odd. A large portrait center stage shows the late King Hamlet as a dignified Army general, chest festooned with medals. It’s hard to ignore the resemblance to the handsome, square-jawed Leon. Whether the painting is an inside joke or holds deeper significance, I’ve no idea. At least it gave me something to ponder sitting through nearly three hours of unevenly acted, blandly staged Dane. One wonders what world this Hamlet takes place in. Contemporary America, broken and disillusioned after January 6, Covid, George Floyd, and endless political circus? No answer arrives, so let’s weigh the individual elements.

In the title role, Ato Blankson-Wood (Slave Play), certainly looks the part. Emo, slender, and highly crushable, the young actor cuts a poet-ish figure in black—in contrast to the vibrant floral hues and patterns with which Jessica Jahn costumes other characters. He’s appealing, but as the night wears on, Blankson-Wood’s earnest, careful delivery of the great speeches and “mad” banter never accumulates tragic force, much less psychological depth. There’s more angst and grit in Claudius’ “O, my offense is rank” soliloquy, delivered with palpable agony by John Douglas Thompson. Greg Hildreth’s tummler Gravedigger has breezy flair. And Daniel Pearce earns much-needed laughs as a vain, fussbudget Polonius. 

John Douglas Thompson, Solea Pfeiffer, Nick Rehberger, and Laughton Royce in ‘Hamlet’ at The Delacorte Theater. Joan Marcus

Solea Pfeiffer loses the battle to render Ophelia a credible figure (the role is nearly impossible to pull off—sane or crazy), but she infuses Hamlet’s doomed ex-bae with spunk and, after she loses her mind, deploys her velvety pop soprano to good effect. There’s a lot of singing throughout this production, unusual but refreshing. The show kicks off with a barbershop quartet harmonizing soulfully over King Hamlet’s coffin. And the traveling players (who perform The Murder of Gonzago for the court) is conceived as a hip-hop theater ensemble: rappers telling stories alongside limber b-boys and -girls. 

All this, plus demonic possession! When the ghost (voiced by an uncredited Samuel L. Jackson) spurs Hamlet to revenge, the spirit inhabits and speaks through him. Blankson-Wood’s eyes roll back in his head and he staggers about, zombie-stiff. Such novel devices and the infusion of fresh musical styles are welcome, lively touches, but can’t make up for a staging that feels undercooked. It may not be as rotten as the state of Denmark, but the time is definitely out of joint.

Information on Free Tickets Here 

Review: To Be or Not to Be at the Public’s ‘Hamlet’ in Central Park?