The mission of the Public Theater's Mobile Unit is to bring its productions to community centers, prisons, and homeless shelters in New York to share the wealth of the city's theater with those who might not otherwise get a chance to experience it. The company's Hamlet, which just wrapped up a three-week tour and has now begun its sit-down run at the Public's Shiva Theater, boasts outstanding performances and an intelligently pared-down version of Shakespeare's longest play that speaks frankly to the rottenness of our time.
"Pared-down" is an understatement. The uncut version of Hamlet can run four hours or longer. The Mobile Unit has judiciously trimmed it to a tidy hour and 45 minutes (no intermission) while keeping the integrity of original plot intact. The sullen Hamlet (played with fiery intelligence by Chukwudi Iwuji) is tormented by the death of his father and by the hasty marriage of his mother, Gertrude (a role elegantly performed by Orlagh Cassidy), to his uncle Claudius. Hamlet sets his mind on the bloody business of revenge after receiving a ghostly visit from his father, who was murdered by Claudius (Timothy D. Stickney in this role and as the Ghost). However, distracted by self-doubt and his on-again, off-again relationship with Ophelia (a powerful Kristolyn Lloyd), he just can't seem to get the job done. Ultimately, a duel between Hamlet and Ophelia's brother, Laertes (a passionate performance by Christian DeMarais), together with various acts of treachery, leaves bodies strewn everywhere and no one but Hamlet's friend Horatio (a buttoned-down Jeffrey Omura) to tell the tale.
Performed in the round with a simple, efficient set designed by Katherine Akiko Day, this production pulls the play out of the past. Iwuji's eminently intelligible Hamlet reads James Baldwin's Nothing Personal in his spare time and wields a golf club while interrogating his mercenary friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Natalie Woolams-Torres and DeMarais) and greeting the Player King (an amusing Christopher Ryan Grant). Polonius (a comical Daniel Pearce) wears headphones when he plants a bug to spy on Hamlet. As the Ghost, Stickney enters with an awkward, zombielike lurch, wearing a silvery suit and glasses that resemble those worn by Malcolm X, foreshadowing some of the social commentary to come. Lloyd, with her beautiful singing voice (she's set to appear in Broadway's upcoming Dear Evan Hansen), owns the stage when she creates her tender yet unsettling Ophelia in the mad scene. But Iwuji is in charge the rest of the time with his ferocious performance, moving about with an energy that makes it feel as though he's playing to every member of the audience.
Director Patricia McGregor has cleverly removed all reference to the play's original place as well. There's no mention of Denmark here, or of any other locale for that matter. "Something is rotten in the state," says Marcellus (Wollams-Torres) with a full stop. The king's suit, the queen's gowns, and Hamlet's torn skinny jeans and hoodie (costumes by Montana Levi Blanco) also make the action current, so that it's no surprise when the clean-cut Horatio pulls a cellphone out of his pocket and starts recording videos.
That cellphone galvanizes the play in the final scene as Horatio lets it linger on the dark-skinned face of Hamlet while he angrily speaks "of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause." It's a tenuous, ambivalent image, given that the dead onstage are casualties of their own brutality, rage, and desire. Still, it's to the Public's credit that it has used Shakespeare's classic tragedy of violence to contribute to a dialogue about the violent tragedies of our day.
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