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NY Theater Reviews

Richard Burton and Scott Shepherd/PH: Paula Court


By Matt Windman

What strange beast walking is this Wooster Group's Hamlet? Neither fish nor foul-as the cast valiantly re-enacts the 1964 Richard Burton stage Hamlet, unspooling in the background.

Two classic sword-fighting tragedies opened back-to-back last month, each conceived in a totally opposite manner. While Cyrano, which stars Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, was unveiled on Broadway in a faithfully traditional staging from David Leveaux, The Wooster Group's Hamlet at the Public was presented the form of a shamelessly avant-garde deconstruction designed to please experimental theater fans and infuriate the rest of us.

The Wooster Group's Hamlet is hardly William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Rather, it is an unusual tribute to the 1964 stage production of Richard Burton's Hamlet, where the cast reenacts the original staging while a digitally edited version of the it plays in the background. It even includes a clip of Charlton Heston doing a monologue from the Kenneth Branagh film version.

Channeling the ghost of the 1964 production, the Group descends into a kind of madness, intentionally replacing its own spirit with the spirit of another, the press release reads. What exactly does that mean? Your guess is as good as ours.

If you attend in hopes of enjoying Shakespeare, you are in for three long, frustrating hours. This is not classical theater, but another avant-garde, multimedia-based experiment by the brilliantly enigmatic Elizabeth LeCompte. As a technical feat, it is unambiguously impressive. But did it really need to be married to Shakespeare's longest tragedy?

The cast appears to be working double-duty, dealing with not only Shakespeare's text, but the demands of high-tech avant-garde production. Kate Valk, in fact, is performing the roles of both Ophelia and Gertrude, a fact that the cast is frequently forced to acknowledge. Scott Shepherd is fine in the title role, but this is not a Hamlet where even Hamlet himself can take center stage.