The Hamlet in Central Park has not opened yet, so it is fairly easy to get in. Helps, no doubt, that the cast is less glittery than sometimes in the Park - and glittery does not always mean the best acting. My last Hamlet in the Park (30 years ago?) was Stacy Keach (unaccountably omitted from the program on past Danes in the program), who was good but sometimes perverse in his line readings (in a rather charming way), and who furthermore was rained out. (There was lightning and thunder last Saturday, too, but not a drop of rain.)
The best part of that ancient performance was Barnard Hughes, the finest of all possible Poloniuses (Polonii?). Ah, how he read that letter! He was so funny I was almost glad to have to leave before he got skewered. This time I waited eagerly to see how Sam Waterston would do the letter - well, Sam is no Barnard, and that's a fact. He brought in Ophelia (Lauren Ambrose) and obliged this shy girl to read the letter herself. I can't imagine her doing this, and neither could Shakespeare. The point of doing it is that no one ever has done it this way; that it makes no sense matters not to Oskar Eustis. Mr. Eustis - like so many directors of classical plays and opera and other well-known pieces nowadays - seems to feel that he has not done his job unless he's done something utterly perverse that no one else has thought of. There is no point to this. This tendency (there are other instances of it) mars a generally fine production with some generally fine moments and perhaps the best Hamlet I've ever seen undertake the part.
This is Michael Stuhlbarg, who is 39 (the oldest NYSF Hamlet ever), and in many other ways does not seem ... typical casting. He is shorter (and used to be much stouter) than most of the cast (and nearly all the population of Denmark). He is a tenor Hamlet - his voice pipes high above the others - and we are used to baritones in the part (at least in Ambrose Thomas's opera). But as I noticed 18 years ago (was it?) when he played the nothing part of the Clown in A Winter's Tale and completely stole his scenes from every other character, Stuhlbarg knows how to speak Shakespearean verse, getting the laughs but also the intent of every word and play on words. Never once did a line of verse pass by as words, words, words - it was all pointed, all defined for us - he brought us along on his outrageous outing. I was not utterly convinced by his melancholy at the beginning of the play, though I was by his antic anger bursting out in the throneroom scene. Later, when he went mad, he was very good - for one thing, genuinely funny - in love with his wordplay and the games he wove (for us) over the heads of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius and Claudius. (Only Gertrude seemed to move him to make sense, though you can't say he was respectful about this.) Especially fine in these scenes was his costume - a demented combination of an old royal uniform and pants rolled to the knee above bare feet. This made sense of his carrying a sword in a kingdom obviously set in 2008.
The scenes where I thought he overdid it - overencouraged by Eustis, I fear - were the play scene, when he flirts lewdly with an uncomfortable Ophelia. He was more than casually rude to her - he ground her nose in it, waggling his crotch in her face. Unless he really was mad, or really hated her, this made no sense - he later claims to have loved her - there is no way he could inflict this public humiliation on the least malicious of his enemies (if she must be that) and really care for her. It seemed a gratuitous sexual pose.
Again, in the bedroom scene, when his threats to his mother (a gracious but not too distinctive Margaret Colin) led him to assault her, climbing up between her legs - Shakespeare has her fear murder, but rape seems far more likely, and it does not seem necessary - the point has been made, it need not be driven home. In any case it is interrupted by the entrance of the Ghost (Jay O. Sanders, also the excellent Player King and Gravedigger), not in armor (as before, and in other Hamlets) but in his pajamas, wearily, as Hamlet might be used to seeing him in this his parents' bed on other occasions when he may have been rough-housing with Mama.
That was a Eustis touch I liked. So was having Ophelia (gone punk, which was fine for Ambrose but not right for the play) re-enter, mad, with a cache of stones that she identifies as flowers, going about knocking people on the head with them. At first I liked the pent-up aggression of this Ophelia (who had been so waiflike before), but it doesn't fit with her flowery death that follows soon after. And if she cuts her hair short, how does it grow again by her funeral?
Another Hamlet touch I liked: like everyone, he can't tell Rosencrantz from Guildenstern (the usual laughs; they both wore bowlers), but he couldn't remember Francesco or Bernardo's name either, and had some trouble with Horatio's name. Message: He's not a politician! He's dwelling within too much. He's not doing all this to make FRIENDS.
Andre Braugher was a politician, but he is not an expansive Claudius (my first was Henry da Silva - in the Park, to the dreadful Hamlet of Alfred Ryder - you win some, you lose some); Braugher seems to keep his thoughts to himself, to create no persona to rule Denmark. He lacked a spark, a reason his subjects elected him over Hamlet in the first place.
It seems to me that Shakespeare has set up all the other likely fellows in the play so that we can compare them to Hamlet, see why the dopey world prefers to admire them, and understand why in fact none of them are fit to wipe his spittle. They are all decisive - and Hamlet is not. The message is: Decisive misses too much, is too hasty, rushes in where meditation would be better. Thus Horatio is a cipher (but not so bad he must be killed by Fortinbras upon usurping the throne - another Eustis touch - I object, because Horatio must live on to tell us Hamlet's story); Fortinbras is a warlike brute; Claudius a murderer; and Laertes a hothead and a hypocrite. Usually.
David Harbour seemed too burly, too physically much to be the gallivanting fencer who tries to keep his sister away from the prince. He wept too much (though Stuhlbarg made us hear the references to tears in the speeches that justified this). A role that always seems too much the playwright's convenience, seemed here too much the director's.
But Stuhlbarg speaks verse beautifully and (on one of those ghastly humid nights too!) was full of energy, dashing around the stage and bouncing through the part, delighting in every figure of speech, making them mean things, playing with those meanings, playing with the syllables, a feast of gorgeous language. He may or may not fear ghosts, the Devil, murderers, false friends, love - but he was absolutely unafraid of the longest and toughest role in English-speaking theater. Bravo.