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First Nighter: Peter Sarsgaard in Shakespeare's and Austin Pendleton's "Hamlet"

It's surprising how many actors appearing as William Shakespeare's Hamlet don't take heed of the young Dane's advice to the players about speaking trippingly on the tongue and not sawing the air. They utter the sage admonition but then go about ignoring it.
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It's surprising how many actors appearing as William Shakespeare's Hamlet don't take heed of the young Dane's advice to the players about speaking trippingly on the tongue and not sawing the air. They utter the sage admonition but then go about ignoring it.

Currently, Peter Sarsgaard is among the transgressors. His interpretation in the Classic Stage Company's production of Hamlet puts the stress on the first syllable of the world-famous character's name. This is a Hamlet, directed without enough control by Austin Pendleton, who begins the play's familiar proceedings as an arrogant brat.

He's someone so irritating that onlookers may instantly side with fratricide Claudius, played by Harris Yulin, whose impeccable understatement is a welcome counterbalance. Perhaps the catch for any actor taking on the role of Hamlet is the awareness that so many others have scaled those walls: The attempt to find another way to interpret the role undoes them.

What anyone in Sarsgaard's period shoes has to remember is that Hamlet is a prince. He's to the manor born and though furious over his father's untimely depth is still someone with the innate wherewithal to act regally and also with humorous intelligence. Looking lean and with shaved head, this Hamlet chops up his speeches. He races through many of them. He speeds rapidly through the "to be or not to be" phrase as if he's not going to be caught doing anything cute with it. No, this Hamlet has no recognizable princely attributes.

Sarsgaard's attack on Hamlet has the once nephew to Claudius and now stepson behaving oddly from the start. Therefore, when he announces he'll put an antic disposition on, he has already been behaving with such exaggerated antics that his only recourse is to pull back. Eventually, rather than seem a young man who possesses the potential to become a benevolent monarch, he gives the impression of being a troubled youth who might benefit from psychiatric help, and the sooner the better.

Surely, when a Hamlet is so short of the mark that the urge is strong to look away from the stage while the emoting is going on, the rest of the production suffers. Attending closely to it, though, reveals other hitches. Director Pendleton sees the play as a modern-dress version of a dysfunctional family drama. There's nothing ostensibly off-kilter about that, since the two families examined here are anything but fully functional. But Pendleton has asked designer Walt Spangler to place a dining table in the center of the playing area and have it look as if decorated by Tiffany. There's no sense of an actual court or of a kingdom just beyond the walls.

When the lights go up, the royals with family friends are seated intimately around the table so that the opening Hamlet scene with guards spotting the elder Hamlet's ghost must be played awkwardly on the fringes of the central tableau. And by the way, Pendleton chooses not to have the wandering ghost viewed in any way, nor does the elder Hamlet speak his ominous "Remember me" when later Hamlet joins his friends on the watch.

Not only does that table remain in place during the entire first half, but Pendleton also sees to it that throughout the proceedings, one or two characters not meant to be present sit or stand visibly as witnesses. For instance, when Hamlet initially soliloquizes about his "too, too solid flesh," Ophelia (Lisa Joyce) sits in mournful silence at the table. Indeed, the centerpiece is only shoved to the side when the second half begins and the Gonzago play intended to incriminate Claudius is presented.

By the way, just beside the main playing area is a nicely appointed bar, with liquor bottles lighted by Justin Townsend, to which actors can repair for a drink when not needed. Also directly upstage is a five-tier wedding cake that's never touched. If it's the Claudius-Gertrude (Penelope Allen) nuptials cake, how come no one's cut into it these practically two months later? Mightn't it begin to crumble, to ossify for some supplementary symbolism?

There's another unusual facet of the set that requires mention. High above is a square, stage-wide installation of mostly plump white flowers. (There are a few blue ones included in the lush arrangement.) What they are meant to symbolize is a puzzle, although they can refer to the flowers Ophelia mimes distributing before she goes off to her watery death. At the earlier dinner, she does pick up a lily (for purity, innocence?) and in time carelessly plunks it in a vase. Whosever idea that omen was--Pendleton's, likely--it's a good one.

As Ophelia in a Grecian gown and tasteful sandals (Constance Hoffman supplied the formal wear), Joyce is quite good at incipient madness, and she's not the only one from whom Pendleton extracts a commendable performance. The best moment in this Hamlet is Yulin's delivery of Claudius's prayer for the forgiveness he knows he doesn't deserve. Coming as it does after the new King's subdued imperiousness, it's a stunning change.

Also keeping his acting counsel effectively is Stephen Spinella as Polonius. Looking not unlike Clifton Webb this time out, Spinella is an absolutely sincere figure of fun. Making another smart impression is Scott Parkinson as an eager Rosencranz, a perky player queen and a weathered gravedigger. Apparently having been many Shakespeare characters (including Hamlet), he knows what he's doing. As Gertrude, Allen gives the Queen's dialogue notable pear-shaped tones, but while at that does capture the lady's growing horror and shame. Daniel Morgan Shelley does well as Guildenstern and in three other roles, but as the conquering Fortinbras, he curiously doesn't get to declare the play's final conciliatory lines. Glenn Fitzgerald is a likably fiery Laertes.

It's the rare attendance at Hamlet that a patron doesn't find something new in it, something that hadn't previously popped out. I had that experience this time around with Queen Gertrude's report of Ophelia's demise in the nearby brook. It's one of the most beautiful speeches in all of Shakespeare, but its ravishing lines may be why the thought never crossed my mind that instead of watching Ophelia being slowly pulled to her death, Gertrude might have jumped in to save the ill-fated damsel or at least might have called for help. Oh, well, noblesse oblige.

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