Strangely enough, the Public Theater hasn't presented Hamlet in Central Park since 1975. Current artistic director Oscar Eustis decided to stage Shakespeare's tragedy himself, and the result is an accessible but uneven production. While the cast makes the language easy to understand, Eustis muddles the story with forced parallels between the offstage war in Hamlet and our ongoing war in Iraq. The production also suffers from a wavering tone and a wide range of acting styles.
Michael Stuhlbarg (The Pillowman) tackles the demanding title role, and he has the stamina and intelligence for the job. But in the early scenes the actor is so energetic he's practically hyperactive. He starts soliloquies by weeping or yelling, puts heavy emphasis on words like foul play, and occasionally thumps his chest. It's not by any means a subtle performance. Stuhlbarg finds far more humor in the melancholy Dane's words than most actors, and that's fine. But he needs to rein himself in and let Shakespeare's beautiful language speak for itself. His performance does deepen considerably in the second half of this three-and-a-quarter-hour production, which grows more powerful as it nears its tragic conclusion.
Among the rest of the cast, the best work is by Shakespeare in the Park alums. Sam Waterston (who played Hamlet in 1975) is a suitably foolish, air-headed Polonius. As his daughter Ophelia, Lauren Ambrose (a radiant Juliet last summer) is heartbreaking as her character goes mad. Jay O. Sanders (hilarious as Bottom in last year's Midsummer Night's Dream) does triple duty as the Ghost of Hamlet's Father, the Player King, and the Gravedigger. He's just right in the first two roles but somewhat miscast in the third. Andre Braugher, who has acted in several Shakespeare plays at the Public, uses his commanding voice to excellent effect as Claudius.
As Gertrude, Claudius' wife and Hamlet's mother, the usually dependable Margaret Colin isn't at her best. For much of the play she's dour and subdued. Perhaps her low-key acting just doesn't fit in with the showy performances around her. One of the showiest is David Harbour's as Laertes like Stuhlbarg he's too manic early on but is better later, especially in the bloody final scene.
Eustis and fight choreographer Thomas Schall make the climactic duel and its aftermath exciting. But Eustis also turns Fortinbras (Piter Marek ) into a kind of terrorist, which doesn't really work. David Korins' set-a towering steel wall with a walkway on top-is striking, and the eternal flame memorializing Hamlet's father is a nice touch. Basil Twist contributes some nifty puppetry for the play within the play.
During previews Eustis experimented with having Stuhlbarg deliver the To be or not to be soliloquy at the very beginning. Luckily, he put it back where it belongs. Some of his remaining directorial choices are questionable, but at least this Hamlet is never dull.