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Credit: Carol Rosegg

What a piece of work is Hamlet, still: Arguably the Bard’s finest play and indisputably his longest, with a title role whose impossible richness continues to be catnip — or kryptonite — to generations of bold-faced actors brave enough to try. (In the past 30 years alone Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jude Law, Ethan Hawke, David Tennant, Ben Whishaw, and Paul Giammati have all joined the fraternal order of mad Danes, either on stage or screen).

The club’s newest member is no stranger to Shakespeare, or to the Public: A star of films both arty (Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) and colon-y (X-Men: Apocalypse, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Oscar Isaac made his stage debut as Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2005, and graduated to Romeo (alongside Lauren Ambrose’s Juliet) two years later. Here he falls under the direction of Tony winner Sam Gold (Fun Home) in an audacious, highly stylized production that is technically faithful to the text, but flouts tradition in almost every other respect. (Gold’s reputation as a strident modernizer precedes him; he’s the same man who lashed an indoor rainstorm on The Glass Menagerie at New York’s Belasco Theatre in March, and had a cargo-pantsed Daniel Craig dance to Drake in his stripped-down Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop last winter.)

The message that this will not be your grandmother’s Hamlet is telegraphed before the play even begins, when Key & Peele‘s Keegan-Michael Key, a lanky Horatio in jeans and a polo shirt, strides out to greet the crowd like the hype guy before a late-night TV audience. (His crack that the room should settle in for “Oh, about six hours and 37 minutes” got one of the evening’s first big laughs; the real time comes in just under four, with two intermissions.) And the set is willfully bare; just a tomato-colored carpet, a few classroom-style chairs, and a rickety table strewn with wildflowers — the better, apparently, to bear both the body of a king and a cold pan of lasagna (both of whom play roughly equivalent supporting roles). Wardrobe ranges from office-casual to cocktail, and the casting is both color- and country-blind; races and accents vary across the players, without acknowledgment or issue.

The text, at least, stays mostly untouched: The king of Denmark his dead; his traitorous brother, Claudius (Ritchie Coster), has taken his crown and his queen (Charlayne Woodard); and his beloved son and heir, Hamlet, sees dead people — and betrayal — wherever he looks. But nearly ever actor changes the rhythm of the language, giving their lines the deliberately self-aware cadences of the 21st century: Peter Friedman’s droll, motor-mouthed Polonius treats his dialogue like Aaron Sorkin with a few extra syllables; eternal sidekicks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (a gender-swapped Roberta Colindrez and Matthew Saldivar, respectively) roll around like Vince Chase’s posse in Entourage; the loyal Horatio could be a guy from your college improv class.

Their gestures and tempos do make the script feel fresh, if sometimes too strenuously meta; Shakespeare with constant, invisible air quotes. And the desire to subvert the expected tips too far with Gayle Rankin’s Ophelia; the Scottish-born actress (probably best known for playing Sheila the She-Wolf in Netflix’s GLOW) tries on a flat Midwestern affect and defiant, Daria-like cynicism — a character reading so far removed from the ethereal-nymph archetype that it renders the role hardly recognizable. It also douses the supposedly central romance; there’s hardly a scrap of chemistry between her and Hamlet, romantic or otherwise.

Thankfully Isaac has a lot to do, other than get her to a nunnery — he must plan and scheme and go mad (but not too mad); he must find a way to mine brick-and-mortar lines (“To be or not to be”; “To sleep, perchance to dream”) for every new, small trace of nuance. To his credit, he commits utterly: Going pantsless for nearly half his stage time, donning a paper toilet-seat cover as a neck warmer, scaling weighty soliloquies with the light-footed agility of an acrobat. (He’s no slacker in the slapstick department, either; one play-within-a-play moment in Act II involving Key and Colindrez is obscenely, absurdly funny.)

If any version can ever be called a definitive Hamlet, this one isn’t really in the running; Gold’s staging is too cheeky, and his tone careens too wildly between farce and tragedy, especially in the third act, when the stakes become unavoidably grim. His showy irreverence for the material can even feel a little condescending — goosing a modern audience into enjoying moldy old Shakespeare, like a metaphorical pill in peanut butter to trick the dog. But there’s a method to his madness, too (is there any colloquial phrase that didn’t originate in these pages?), and enough eternal magic in the material to make four hours feel fully, smartly spent. B+

Hamlet (2017)
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