by Brooke Pierce

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday July 13, 2017

As long as there are talented, ambitious, and youthful-but-maturing actors, there will be productions of "Hamlet." The latest, courtesy of the Public Theater, stars Oscar Isaac, who was a fine Romeo in Shakespeare in the Park a decade ago before becoming a darling of the indie movie ("Inside Llewyn Davis") and cable TV ("Show Me a Hero") worlds and graduating to blockbuster film stardom with his turn in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." So now is the perfect time for him to come back to the theater and prove his chops in one of William Shakespeare's most challenging roles.

This "Hamlet," however, is not about the star -- great though he is -- so much as the director's vision. Director Sam Gold is offering up a very intimate take on the tragedy, presented "in the round" in the Public's relatively small Anspacher Theater, with a cast of nine in modern dress and no real set to speak of.

Gold made the rather surprising choice of casting Keegan-Michael Key ("Key & Peele"), an actor mostly known for his comedic work, as Hamlet's earnest friend Horatio, and even has him giving a humorous pre-show talk to the audience while surrounded by the other actors. This establishes an informal feel from the start, yet there is nothing loose about the dramatic tension, which is strong throughout the engaging four-hour production (yes, four hours, including two 10-minute intermissions).

One simple but incredibly effective stroke of genius here is having a single on-stage musician, Ernst Reijseger, using his cello to create a subtle underscore for the production, evoking anxiety, mournfulness, and even a few rare moments of joy. Another highlight is the scenic design by David Zinn, which is spare but clever, using props ranging from a take-out tin of lasagna to potted plants in unexpected and memorable ways.

In case you don't know the plot of "Hamlet" (due to a Shakespeare aversion or a neglectful high school English teacher), the play is about a prince who recently lost his father, only to see his just-widowed mother marry his uncle who then becomes king. Convinced that his uncle actually murdered his father, Hamlet is beset by both a desire for revenge and feelings of indecision. There is much palace intrigue and soliloquizing about the nature of being before a grand finale where just about everyone ends up dead from poisoned chalices and poison-tipped swords.

While the play remains one of the most cherished works of literature because of its universal themes, the character of Hamlet can sometimes feel remote, whether because of his atypical life (i.e. prince of Denmark who chats with his dad's ghost) or because of his erratic behavior during large portions of the play. Isaac's Hamlet, though, is more relatable and contemporary; he seems like someone you could have known at college or who works in the office down the hall.

The "mad" scenes in particular, where Hamlet may either be going bonkers or just pretending to be, are more earthbound (and, quite frankly, less annoying) than in many other productions. The same goes for Ophelia, Hamlet's sort-of love interest, as played by Gayle Rankin. Her portrayal of the character as a strong woman who sadly starts to break with reality when faced with the tragic circumstances swirling around her is sympathetic and touching.

Peter Friedman has an interesting take on the role of Polonius, the king's chief counselor and Ophelia's father. Often played like an officious, self-important fool, Friedman makes him seem more shrewd and business-minded. One can imagine him having spent some time working on the Danish version of Wall Street before making his way to his government post. (Friedman also gives a winning turn as the philosophizing Gravedigger late in the play.)

The cast is rounded out by Ritchie Coster as Hamlet's uncle Claudius (and the ghostly visage of Hamlet's father), Charlayne Woodard as Hamlet's mother Gertrude, Anatol Yusef as Ophelia's brother Laertes, and Matthew Saldivar and Roberta Colindrez in multiple roles.

Together this excellent cast, under Gold's direction, takes Shakespeare's grand tragedy and makes it more casual, more personal, and still powerful as ever.

"Hamlet" runs through September 3 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-967-7500 or visit www.publictheater.org.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.