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Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: A trimmed and timely Hamlet at the Public Theater

Written by
Sandy MacDonald

Purists may squawk, but many a time-pressed theatergoer can appreciate a smartly condensed Shakespeare play—as do audiences who, for reasons of income or mobility, have little opportunity to view full-fledged productions. Formed in 1957, the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit continues to carry out Joe Papp’s core vision, delivering bare-bones productions to underserved communities (prisons, shelters, community centers) throughout the five boroughs. Fresh from its latest rounds, the Unit has now settled into the mothership on Lafayette Street for a brief, tour-capping run. In starting out, the performers, who shoulder multiple roles, must be ready for anything. By the time they reach the Public’s bare and intimate black-box in the round, they tend to be a tight, game ensemble, sparking off one another like fast-firing synapses.

This is certainly true in the current half-Hamlet (the abridged text runs 16,000 words, versus the usual 32,000), even if it suffers at times from a disparity in skill levels. Certain performers, such as Royal Shakespeare Company vet Chukwudi Iwuji in the title role, are highly effective; others appear randomly recruited and out of their depth. But at $20 a ticket (which will help pay for next season’s free touring shows), who’s complaining?

Iwuji is worth many times the price of admission, even if he’s set apart from the rest of the cast by his orotund British elocution: The social isolation works in context. Iwuji starts off hesitant and blinky, head bowed, like a student unwillingly rousted from the library. Yet a fulminating fury manifests as early as the ramparts-walking scene, in which Hamlet bravely pursues his father’s ghost (an oddly vigorous Timothy D. Stickney, got up by costumer Montana Levi Blanco like Malcolm X in astrakhan hat).

Within the family compound, Iwuji’s Hamlet is appropriately hard to read, especially when he starts brandishing a golf club while grinning like a Cheshire cat. (Director Patricia McGregor strews the proceedings with all sorts of playful oddities.) Ophelia (Kristolyn Lloyd) would find Hamlet a challenge even if she didn’t appear to be visiting from another era—our own, given her exasperated eye rolls and furious side-eye.

Some of the contemporary touches pay off with laughs—e.g., the jumbo roll of condoms that Ophelia’s smooth-talking brother, university-bound Laertes (Christian DeMarais, outstanding in a bunch of roles), tries to hide from Polonius (Daniel Pearce). Whether fluffing the audience to clap for the royals or declaiming Polonius’s famous homilies—which the siblings puncture by jumping on his words—Pearce makes a most amusing toady. As a chill gravedigger, visited all too briefly, he also plays a mean Dobro guitar.

Public Theater (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Patricia McGregor. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. Through Oct 9. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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