by Samuel L. Leiter
In 1989, when he was forty-nine, Austin Pendleton tackled the title role in Hamlet in an Off Broadway production. Despite stretching credibility—he was too old for the role and encumbered with a comic presence that made him less than ideal for the melancholic Dane—he gave what a New York Times critic called “an intelligent, articulate and reasoned reading”; notably, he excellently captured Hamlet’s sardonic sense of humor.
Except for a few fleeting moments, however, chiefly stemming from Stephen Spinella’s smugly bureaucratic Polonius, there’s very little to laugh at in Pendleton’s own staging of the tragedy for the Classic Stage Company, in which Peter Sarsgaard’s wearily petulant Hamlet seems not to know a joke from a handsaw. Hamlet, of course, is a brilliant wit, but Sarsgaard throws most of his potential laughs away by racing through them and speaking as conversationally as possible, ignoring the meter, and—like the entire cast—performing as if this were a contemporary domestic drama. While he often delivers insight and feeling, he’s rarely more than a shadow Hamlet, lacking the prince’s romantic nobility as his trademark sleepy-eyed persona shuffles uneasily through a colorless and problematic production only fitfully pulsing with life.
Pendleton, who, even at 75, remains one of New York’s busiest actor-directors (his staging of Between Riverside and Crazy was a recent cause célèbre), offers a Hamlet with only ten actors. This radical slimming down, while not original (the Bedlam Theatre does a four-actor version), is done without costume changes (other than the inconspicuous removal or donning of a jacket). Constance Hoffman’s modern dress designs provide the nobility with formal clothing while offering not a stitch of eye-catching theatricality for the drably dressed visiting Players. Even at Ophelia’s graveside, Gertrude (Penelope Allen) must stand there in her silver evening gown and high heels.
The production is rife with tics. Actors morph from role to role before our eyes, only rarely assuming identifying characteristics; if, like Hamlet, you’ve always had trouble separating Rosencrantz (Scott Parkinson) from Guildenstern (Daniel Morgan Shelley), there’s little here to help you, not even that one is black and one white. (You’ll be interested to know that R and G have a coke habit). Glenn Fitzgerald’s graying Laertes could be Claudius in another production, while casting senior citizens Harris Yulin as Claudius and Penelope Allen as Gertrude diminishes the possibility that—for all Hamlet’s ravings—passion played a role in their nuptials (or that Hamlet might harbor Oedipal urges).
The music-deficient sound design (by Ryan Rumery/Soundscape) is mainly ominous droning. Hamlet, despite Sarsgaard’s full beard on the program cover, sports smooth cheeks and a freshly shaved head, not unlike Yorick’s skull, into whose cavity Hamlet echoes some of his lines, skull to skull. There’s no grave, thus forcing Laertes to writhe about on the floor, with Hamlet following, as the dead Ophelia (Lisa Joyce) stands blandly by with the funeral party at graveside. The battlement scenes are so dimly lit by the usually reliable Justin Townsend you’re tempted to help with your pocket flashlight. And principals (one at a time) invade scenes in which they play no part to become distracting pieces of human statuary, waiting to come to life in the following scene.
Walt Spangler’s simplified setting sits on a white Lucite floor capable of being lit from beneath; it’s dominated throughout by a dining table and chairs, a huge wedding cake up center, and an impressive, white floral canopy overhead. This is fine for the opening wedding celebration, but why is it still there for the fatal duel?
During that dully executed (pun intended) conventional fencing match (in the course of which Claudius poisons himself), the dead Polonius walks calmly by. Polonius, in fact, is more a zombie than a corpse, since when he’s slain in Gertrude’s bedroom, he simply takes a long, leisurely stroll through the scene, perhaps on his way to take one last pee before shuffling off this mortal coil. Could his addition be compensation for the complete absence of the play’s actual ghost, who appears to have gotten stuck on the LIE coming from Beth Moses?
Volatility is too infrequent in this lugubriously paced, low-keyed, unexceptionally acted rendering of a play requiring full-blooded, and emotion-packed vitality. Only Penelope Allen’s dignified Gertrude gives us a taste of Shakespeare’s classic flavor. After three hours and ten minutes (despite many cuts), one prays that the outmoded way of ending the play will be used—even if destructive of its political intentions—by concluding with Horatio’s “Goodnight, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”; the Fortinbras business be damned. Our prayers are answered. Finally, Pendleton, for the audience’s sake, if not the scholars’, has chosen wisely, if not what scholars would call well.
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th Street
Through May 10
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).