Renaissance ‘Hamlet’ reborn in modern day

By Joseph C. Myers, Contributing Writer

Classic Stage Company’s production of “Hamlet” is an innovative, modern take on the Shakespearean classic. Instead of being performed in English renaissance style, this version of “Hamlet” is performed in standard American English, and the idiomatic change makes the play accessible for modern audiences. 

The theater is arranged in an intimate amphitheater setting. The actors use the entire space, including the floor level of the audience as well as the aisles, creating an immersive experience. During most of the play, there is one set that features a lavish dinner table, a bar, a table with a wedding cake and couches that surround the perimeter. Walt Spangler’s set represents the wedding of Claudius (Harris Yulin) and Gertrude (Penelope Allen), turning the setting into a volatile post-wedding after-party.

Director Austin Pendleton takes several creative liberties with this well known story, successfully giving it a bolder, edgier feel. For instance, Ophelia (Lisa Joyce) is on stage observing all the happenings until her demise. She physically reacts to whatever she overhears, and because of this directorial choice Ophelia’s growing hysteria can be observed by the audience throughout the entire play. Another surprising choice is portraying Hamlet, Rosencrantz (Scott Parkinson) and Guildenstern (Daniel Morgan Shelley) as rowdy jocks, including a radical scene where they snort cocaine. Shockingly, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father is never seen, further playing into the ambiguity of the ghost’s existence.

At 44 years old, a significant age difference exists between Peter Sarsgaard, the lead actor portraying Hamlet, and his character who is supposedly 30 years old. Despite this discrepancy, Sarsgaard portrays Hamlet with youthfulness and energy, contributing to a thrilling and at times terrifying performance. Sarsgaard’s performance is phenomenal and intense. Stephen Spinella also gives a notable performance as Polonius — his comedic timing in portraying the dim-witted character adds humor to counterbalance the play’s drama.

Justin Townsend’s innovative lighting design was essential, as it encompassed both dramatic low-lighting as well as full house lighting. The low-lighting, as well as more traditional lighting, added to the play’s suspenseful tone. However, the bright house lighting gave the audience a feeling of inclusivity, which contributed to the feeling of uneasiness.

Ultimately, the modern production of “Hamlet” is a novel take on the well known Shakespearean classic. The new spin makes it immensely more relatable and easier to understand. Though it proves to be radical and pushes boundaries, increasing the craziness of the plotline to explosive extremes, Classic Stage Company’s production of “Hamlet” is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

“Hamlet” is playing at the Classic Stage Company on 136 E. 13th St. until May 10.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 30 print edition. Email Joseph C. Myers at [email protected]