There was a time when actors playing Hamlet could be seen as spiritual descendants of Barrymore, Olivier or Gielgud. The inspiration for Stephen Lang's portrayal seems to be Abbie Hoffmann.
Lang's interpretation of Hamlet as a petulant snot is the centerpiece of an altogether enervating production. On the basis of his galvanizing work in "The Speed of Darkness" and "A Few Good Men," I expected something more intelligent and imaginative here.
In those works, he played freaks. Hamlet, I'm afraid, is a little more complex. He is a prince who has been robbed of his kingdom by a wicked uncle and his own mother. There is nothing princelike about a Hamlet in a moth-eaten sweater and no shoes.
Nor is there anything noble about the lower-class English accent Lang affects.
Lang's Hamlet is confrontational from the first scene, where he claps raucously to heckle Claudius and Gertrude. If he's so pugnacious, avenging his father's death shouldn't require 3 1/2 hours of his time or ours.
This Hamlet gives almost no evidence that he is either contemplative or Christian, the two things that check his thirst for revenge.
Moreover, his emotions know no bounds. The speech in which Hamlet laments that he cannot generate as much passion for carrying out his uncle's murder as the Player King does over the fictional Hecuba is made meaningless by the fact that Lang is infinitely more histrionic than the Player King.
When he confronts first the hapless Ophelia, and later his bewildered mother, Lang, not an imposing figure to begin with, crouches, making himself seem gnomelike - an effect accentuated by his fluffy hair and Vandyke beard.
He stomps the floor. His voice rasps.
The effect is not anguish. It's Rumpelstiltskin.
The list of freakish effects is endless - throbbing bronchial heaves during the ghost's speech that seem particularly overdone in view of how dull the ghost is; finger-snapping that breaks the rhythm of key rhymed lines; a silly use of a mask in the scene with Gertrude (left over from the Roundabout's recent "Visit"?).
The death of such a Hamlet (in the most incoherently staged final scene I have ever seen) is not tragic but a welcome relief.
As Claudius, Michael Cristofer has a lordly swagger, if little else. Kathleen Widdoes has a few moments as Gertrude, though she does a lot of posing. Elizabeth McGovern is an inane, smirking Ophelia, James Cromwell a drab Polonius. Even relatively easy roles (Laertes and Osric) are lifelessly done.
The set adds considerably to the overall feeling of incoherence. The costumes add little (unless you consider the giggles they contribute in the play-within-the-play, when everyone shows up in glitzy gold capes. Why?)
A few months ago I reviewed an Israeli "Hamlet" full of dumb shtick. It seems a model of intellectual rigor compared with this.
So, how mad was Hamlet?
Fashion once made Shakespeare's gloomy Dane little more than ironically romantic - a prince traumatized ambition, stirred emotionally to revenge for a father he believes murdered, yet intellectually disempowered for action. Or, as Laurence Olivier so simplistically put it in his celebrated film, Hamlet was "a man who could not make up his mind."
Yet fashions change even in Hamlets. The romantic, hesitant prince - personified once by John Gielgud and still alive and thriving in Mel Gibson's admittedly more athletic recent movie version - has over the past couple of decades or so been challenged by rougher, tougher and altogether crazier interpretations.
In Paul Weidner's punctilious and intelligent staging of "Hamlet," which opened at the Roundabout Theater last night, our latest Hamlet, Stephen Lang - bearded and looking crazy like a fox in wolf's clothing - starts slowly and builds up to juggernaut force.
Intense, pinpoint-concentrated, at times anti-poetic, with a voice occasionally descending to a whining bleat, this wild and fierce performance is truly original.
The only bearded Hamlet - I know about the text - in my experience, apart from Alec Guinness the second time round, the beard is only the beginning of this antic difference.
This Hamlet's energy is all internalized, and he seems propelled more by pure disgust than any desire for vengeance. His jokes are bitter, malicious and physical, he expects and gets nothing from anyone. But he pushes on to death - presumably because it's there. A nihilistic Hamlet if ever I met one - but powerfully impressive.
Although the main role dominates the production - as any good Hamlet must - all Weidner's readings are thougtful, and the cast excellent.
Michael Cristofer - better known as a playwright ("The Shadow Box" among others) than an actor - makes a wonderfully sensual, vulgar and forceful Claudius.
Kathleen Widdoes has a generous touch of lubricity as a more than usually fickle Gertrude, Elizabeth McGovern is a sweetly wraithlike Ophelia with a dirty mouth, and James Cromwell is a soundly conventional Polonius.
Bill Campbell (of "The Rocketeer" fame) seems slightly overtentative as Laertes (relax, the stage isn't going to bite you), but John Newton makes an outstandingly and naturally eccentric Gravedigger, while Michael Genet is a stalwart if stolid Horatio.
Weidner uses the cast with an easy skill. He has a nice feeling for the text and the subtext. For example, the way the Gravedigger reacts to Hamlet's speech on Yorick as he gradually gathers who this stranger is.
One miscalculation in the staging comes in the dowdy designing - the costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz, lack character and style, while Christopher H. Barreca's permanent setting is the oddest mixture of the realistic, with a most likely looking copse to the side of the stage, and of functionally multi-purpose anonymity. The result is an odd-looking "Hamlet" that, in contrast with the production as a whole, is visually dull and uneasy.
In the past the Roundabout has not had a great deal of luck with its Shakespeare - one remembers the recent "Tempest" and "King Lear." What is most encouraging about this "Hamlet," apart from the welcome virtuosity of Lang, is the way it shows a new general authority. Some of the smaller parts could have been played bigger, but on the whole this was Shakespeare worthy of a great city - and it's not too often we in New York can make that modest claim.
As one of our more accomplished and versatile actors, Stephen Lang may be ready for "Hamlet," but "Hamlet" may not be ready for him, at least until he is given more clearsighted directorial guidance than he receives from Paul Weidner at the Roundabout Theater Company. Although Mr. Lang is always interesting to watch onstage, his restless energy cannot compensate for the imprecision that surrounds him.
The production that opened last night at the Criterion Center is without any sense of a cumulative vision, either in the play or the performances. Mr. Weidner has proven himself to be adept with small-scale contemporary plays, but he is uneasy in his assault on Elsinore. This is the first American "Hamlet" on Broadway in a number of seasons. Regrettably, it is not of a caliber with that of Kevin Kline at the Public Theater or Mark Lamos's version starring Richard Thomas at Hartford Stage, both of which offered compelling insights into the play.
Mr. Weidner's intention may have been to offer a more visceral or at least a more tactile "Hamlet," one that would capture the attention of an audience not ordinarily inclined to Shakespeare. The result is a production that is overemphatic (while blurring the undercurrents). Histrionics fly high in the mistaken notion that shouting is synonymous with acting. The staging, scenery and costumes are as motley as the company of actors, who, it would seem, are largely left to their individual devices and are overworked when it comes to doubling in roles.
The Roundabout "Hamlet" begins with a raucous re-enactment of the battlement scene, which finds Horatio (Michael Genet) barking his lines and sinking to his knees with a thud. Perhaps frightened away by Horatio, Robert Hogan's Ghost remains invisible. When he is finally seen, he is dressed in ragged night clothes and standing in bright light. Later he works his way through a bramble of branches masquerading as the castle garden. There is no sense of mystery in the portrayal of the Ghost or in the production itself.
With all the ranting from others, Mr. Lang's Hamlet at first seems like a calming influence, as he tells us sad tales about his too too sullied flesh. In his beard and mane of blond hair, he looks leonine and is in trim, princely form. But when he sees the Ghost, he topples over as if struck by lightning. There is no lightning here, only unorchestrated thunder.
Playing Hamlet in his mock insane mood, Mr. Lang is instantly transformed into a barefoot bohemian, a madman with twigs in his hair. Has he taken a premature step into the world of King Lear? Soon he is back in basic black and puzzling over how to say "to be or not to be" and not sound like other Hamlets. His solution to this and other soliloquies is to speak conversationally and to append occasional eccentric touches, an approach that shortchanges Shakespeare's poetry. At least Mr. Lang is articulate in his delivery, which is more than can be said for some of the other actors.
Michael Cristofer's Claudius is all bluster and no conviction, and the Players are a third-rate troupe. If they passed a hat after their performance, it would remain empty. Faced with an unresponsive rendition of the Murder of Gonzago, Claudius clutches his stomach as if suffering indigestion. Or perhaps that reaction is intended as an act of theatrical criticism. Even as talented a Shakespearean actress as Kathleen Widdoes, who has played Gertrude before, is moved to raise her voice to be heard over the clamor.
James Cromwell's Polonius is pedestrian, which may be one reason (but no excuse) for Bill Campbell's weightless Laertes; this Laertes might have learned from his father's sanctimonious advice. Among the principals, Elizabeth McGovern is the closest to giving a fully recognizable performance. But she also has her quirks, including a mad scene in which her gown keeps threatening to fall down, and she is victimized by odd directorial choices. When Hamlet tries to hie her to a nunnery, she is crouching on her knees. He drags her by her hands, as if sliding a recalcitrant pet across the floor. Then he does it again.
The closet scene is bedless but with chairs, which look like remnants of Mr. Weidner's Roundabout revival of "Pygmalion." A moratorium should be declared on chairs as scenery. Slaying Polonius behind what looks to be a painter's dropcloth, Hamlet clutches his heart as if he might really have regret. But soon he is playing a gamboling game of hide and seek with Claudius, climbing to a perch atop a tall column, the sole reason for this piece of scenery being onstage.
Things improve in the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, with Mr. Campbell rising to Mr. Lang's challenge. Mr. Lang twirls his sword before he plunges skillfully into swordplay. But once the stage is littered with bodies, Fortinbras appears in the person of David Comstock, last seen as the Player Queen. As performed, the scene offers a tepid conclusion to a hugger-mugger production.