Get thee to a lottery, or line up on the day at the Delacorte or at a distribution site in the five boroughs or the lobby of the Public Theater for a ticket to this highly accessible, slick and modern interpretation of Hamlet. The joy of Free Shakespeare in the Park is partly that it is free and under the stars, with the sounds of the park and city floating in and scent of the linden blossoms wafting over. But Kenny Leon’s production of Hamlet is a super-fresh take on this play of plays with extraordinary performances, albeit on a wacky set that may have some audience members scratching their heads.
The basic plot of this classic features a king killed by his brother, who then marries the surviving queen. Hamlet, son of the dead king and the living queen, learns in his grief that his father was murdered—his source his father’s ghost. There’s a grave digger, a tortured love affair, poison, some skulls, and a play within a play. These ingredients make it a fascinating challenge for directors and actors alike. Here Leon has cast as Hamlet the breathtaking Ato Blankson-Wood, who carries the role to new heights. From his entrance on the stage, weeping at his father’s funeral, to being possessed by his father’s ghostly spirit, a truly terrifying scene, to tender moments with his mother—there’s so much to admire in his performance. He also injects Hamlet’s madness with a desperation that suggests he has seen too much atrocity. Leon keeps the action moving at a fair pace, which makes Blankson-Wood’s delivery of the famous “To be or not to be” speech even more compelling when he slows it down to a gentle, imploring deliberation.
It all plays out before askew buildings like something out of a fun fair—in America, not the original play’s Denmark. There are American flags and an election sign for Stacey Abrams suggesting we are in Georgia. But is the backdrop an evangelical church–there’s a suggestion of a steeple—and is the slanted house off to the side an asylum? And what is the parked Jeep doing stage left? Its lights flash but it never moves, and it looks suspiciously like a bit of clumsy product placement. It’s not clear what the scenic designer, Beowulf Borrit’s intention is, but we can infer that Hamlet has analogies with our violent society—where many families see their loved ones killed. There may also be a deeper meaning conferred by the realization that some of the elements of the set were used in Leon’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing in 2019. The Hamlet set warps the same buildings, in what is perhaps commentary on the deterioration of our society in the intervening years. And perhaps the contemporary American setting is also intended to make this 400-year-old play resonate with a contemporary American audience.
While the set is a bit puzzling, the costume design by Jessica Jahn strikes a hip and unusually colorful note. Hamlet is often produced in swaths of black and grey to mirror its dark story, but here Queen Gertrude—Lorraine Toussaint in top form—is attired in lavish reds and golds, while Hamlet’s friend Horatio—Warner Miller doing wonders with one of Shakespeare’s most taciturn major roles—may be channeling Travis Scott with his diamond bling and Gucci-esque satin jacket. Oddly, Claudius is given a U.S. marine’s hat, but that’s no distraction from John Douglas Thompson’s commanding performance. Another costume conundrum: Daniel Pearce as Polonius appears to have borrowed Atticus Finch’s 1930s wardrobe from the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird, down to the two-tone shoes. But in that vein, Pearce brings a Southern charm to the bumbling and verbose courtier.
Hamlet’s ill-fated friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Mitchell Winter and Brandon Gill) are hilarious decked out as preppy pleasers. One slight casting slip might be Solea Pfeiffer as Ophelia, who towers over many of the male cast members—it’s hard to believe that she would lose it after being dumped by Hamlet. She brings a whole new level of shriek to her mad scene, a sound that makes the blood run cold with its despair. But the decision to have her appear as a ghost and sing after her drowning is out of place and undermines the tragic circumstances, even though she sings beautifully. Another scene that is usually a moment of light relief, the gravedigger’s interlude, is played with such laconic laid-backness by Greg Hildreth that it feels like a throwaway.
Which brings us to the production’s musical interludes. Drawing on multiple genres, Jason Michael Webb’s composition and lyrics add another contemporary layer to the production. There’s an a cappella group at the funeral, a rap number, and the actors’ troupe sings a song with the lyrics “God’s cry” (which perhaps references the Drake hit “God’s Plan”). A smattering of other modern flourishes—such as a mask joke that falls a bit flat in the post-Covid era and the perhaps inevitable selfie moment—place us thoroughly in the present.
There is so much to absorb in this play, with its timeless text and outstanding cast, that the wait for the free ticket will be well worth it. At nine weeks, Hamlet has a longer run than usual for the Public’s Free Shakespeare in the Park. Next year the Delacorte Theater will be under renovation, so it’s now or wait till 2025 to experience one of the great pleasures of summer in New York.