Reviews: Oscar Isaac’s Pensive Prince Steadies Hamstrung ‘Hamlet’; Sondheim’s ‘Assassins’ At Encores!

Carol Rosegg

Thoughtful, self-possessed and charismatically morose, Oscar Isaac inhabits Shakespeare’s melancholy prince as naturally as the sweater he wraps himself in. This youthful Hamlet is most compelling during soliloquies as familiar to us as speech itself, delivered in the hushed cadence of prayers seeking grace, and perhaps deliverance out of the nightmare that has brought him home to Elsinore from college to see his mother marry the uncle who’s murdered his revenge-demanding father.

I’m tempted here to say I know whereof Hamlet speaks. At several points during Sam Gold’s nearly four-hour production, which opened Thursday at the Public Theater, others besides its soul-wracked hero may seek an exit. Few directors of our time have been as contradictory and divisive as Gold, nor, I think, as maddeningly unpredictable. The results have been decidedly mixed, and this Hamlet, with several fine performances sparkling through a muddy and incomprehensibly vulgar reading – do we really need to see Polonius on the toilet? –  is no exception.

Hamlet Carol Rosegg

In recent months, he’s set Othello (with David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig) in a garishly fluorescent military barracks; The Glass Menagerie (with Sally Field and Joe Mantello) in a rehearsal studio; and Lucas Hnath’s trippy Ibsen sequel, A Doll’s House, Part 2, in a neon-accented, semi-classical echo chamber. He also captained the Tony-winning musical Fun Home along its journey from these same quarters to Broadway with consummate sensitivity.

If there’s an overall aesthetic in play, as it were, it must be to unnerve us, to force us to see and hear drama unchained from preconceptions and expectations. Sometimes the result is exhilarating, as with Fun Home, Menagerie and Doll’s House. Sometimes I want to throw the book, or at least the script, at him, as is the case with this mish-mosh Hamlet. Paradoxically, I applaud  Gold and the Public for taking the kinds of risks a nonprofit theater ought to be taking, in which the missteps can be as instructive as the successes.

Isaac is the rare actor as comfortable onstage as before the camera (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Show Me A Hero, Inside Llewyn Davis). He’s giving a committed, fully conceived performance as a young man whose heart and brain are in serious conflict: he over-thinks and over-feels everything, from his ghostly father’s lethal instruction to avenge his murder to his tortured relationships with both his mother and his girlfriend.

Gold has assembled a stellar company around this rising star that includes Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele) as Hamlet’s confidante Horatio; Gayle Rankin (The Meyerowitz Stories, Netflix’ G.L.O.W.) as Ophelia; Peter Friedman (Love and Other Drugs) as her father Polonius; Ritchie Closter (American Gangster; Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver) and Charlayne Woodard (The Leftovers) as Claudius and Gertrude; and Roberta Colindrez (Amazon’s I Love Dick) as Rosencrantz.

Oscar Isaac as Hamlet. Carol Rosegg

The dress is contemporary (costumes by Kay Voyce), with Isaac mostly in dark hoodie and sweat pants, except when he’s stripped down to his black briefs and that sweater, a gift to Ophelia (why?) that she, heartbroken, has returned to him. Syringes replace swords and daggers, except when they don’t (the foils come out for Hamlet vs. Laertes, well-played by Anatol Yusef). David Zinn’s set consists mainly of a metal table and office chairs. The play opens with that table laden with flowers upon which the King’s ghost lies. (Later a prone Hamlet will begin “To be or not to be” in the same fashion.)

The most striking element of the set, and indeed of the production, is composer and musician Ernst Reijseger (Prejudice), set up in the rear of the Anspacher Theater’s stage area, with his cello and a kind of pedal organ whose pipes Hamlet will use in his denunciation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by the excellent Matthew Saldívar. Often strumming the cello like a guitar, Reijseger’s jazz-infused score perfectly mirrors Hamlet’s mood swings and the actions they precipitate.

If only such coherence held sway in the play itself. Instead, the performances evidence a cast at sea, compounded by doubling and tripling of roles that makes the plot confusing, not to say ridiculous. If that’s Gold’s intent, he has success, if not Shakespeare. But I kept waiting for an engaging, or at least interesting, point of view to emerge. I was still waiting when the time came for Fortinbras to appear as witness to the carnage at play’s end. But he never showed, either.

City Center’s Encores! Off-Center season began Wednesday night with perhaps the most moving and persuasive argument yet for Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins. The show has been frequently mounted since the original Playwrights Horizons production in late 1990, but perhaps the times have finally caught up with this prescient heartbreaker of what’s essentially a pastiche song cycle that gives voice to what the current White House occupant might call ultimate losers: the men and women who have assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, eight U.S. presidents beginning with Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

The show is loosely set in the shooting gallery of a carnival arcade, where a barker (Ethan Lipton) sings, “Hey, pal, feelin’ blue? Don’t know what to do? C’mere and kill a president…” in the song  “Everbody’s Got The Right,” as they line up to choose their guns and targets. What comes next in roughly chronological order are period-style songs and patter in which the would-be shooters give voice to their misery, disappointment, disenfranchisement, crazy need and just plain craziness.

Assassins Joan Marcus

In 1990, the material struck me as trivializing of tragedy: In the first scenario, a balladeer (here performed by Clifton Duncan) jabs at the self-appointed tyrant-slayer Booth (Steven Pasquale, brilliant), saying his true reason for killing Lincoln was a slew of bad reviews and “missing cues.” Gerald Ford’s would-be killers, Charles Mansonite Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore are portrayed (with earnest precision by Erin Markey and Victoria Clarke, respectively) as flip sides of a Me Decade coin.

Over those many productions, Assassins has been refined and a central, defining song added that’s made all the difference. It’s the penultimate number, called “Something Just Broke,” and it connects the impact of all the events, most significantly Lee Harvey Oswald’s (the superb Cory Michael Smith) killing of John F. Kennedy. It comes after all the assassins have joined a suicidal Oswald at the Texas School Book Depository, urging him instead to shoot the arriving JFK. “I’ve seen the future, Lee. And you are it,” Booth says. Killing JFK will elevate them all from footnotes to immortality.

When the terrible deed is done, we hear the voices of Americans absorbing the news:

Something just spoke
Something I wish I hadn’t heard
Something bewildering occurred
Fix it up fast,
Till it’s just smoke

And then the show resolves with a reprise of “Everybody’s Got The Right,” with this astounding verse:

Everybody’s got the right to be happy
Don’t be mad
Life’s not as bad as it seems.
If you keep your goal in sight
You can climb to any height–
Everybody’s got the right to their dreams
Everybody’s got the right to be different…
Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine

Assassins Joan Marcus

The production – and the show – confirmed my own belief that for Sondheim (and he’s hardly alone) the murder of Kennedy truly was the day something in America broke and has yet to heal. And thus the timing of this concert could not have been more stunning.

Under Anne Kauffman’s miraculously seamless direction (and with Chris Fenwick as musical director), the ensemble soars; especially Pasquale,  along with Shuler Hensley as Leon Czolgosz and Danny Wolohan as Samuel Byck. The Asssassins concerts are repeated through this weekend. Don’t pass up your chance to catch a show the times finally have caught up with.

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