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BWW Review: Oscar Isaac Stars in Sam Gold's Jaunty Rendering of HAMLET

Though your ticket says you're seated at The Public's Anspacher Theater, don't be surprised if once director Sam Gold's jaunty mounting of Shakespeare's Hamlet shifts into gear, you find yourself wondering if you may have stumbled into some indie production playing in the back room of a hipster bar on the Brooklyn side of the L train.

Oscar Isaac (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Working with a cast of nine, most of whom play multiple roles, Gold may have, in a way, cast himself as one of New York's multitude of imaginative and unknown twentysomething theatre directors who becomes the beneficiary of someone's maxed-out credit card and whips up a Hamlet loaded with more snarky attitude than production values.

David Zinn's set consists primarily of a lightweight table and office chairs; the sort that our fictional twentysomething director might have rescued after being tossed out by some upgrading small business. There's also an upstage doorway to a fully visible restroom, as one might find in the back room of a Brooklyn hipster bar. The kind that would make some young hotshot director think, "I gotta use that."

Kaye Voyce's costumes give the appearance of following the low-budget theatre tradition of telling the cast members to just wear something comfortable.

If any of this sounds like a knock on the energetic antics at the Anspacher, that's not the intention. This is an extremely entertaining production that's full of cleverness (admittedly, sometimes too-cleverness) that whizzes by its running time of nearly four hours. (Despite its length, the production omits any mention of Norwegian Prince Fortinbras.)

The play begins casually, with Keegan-Michael Key's easy-going Horatio acting as your host for the evening and humorously taking care of the pre-show announcements, including a warning not to attempt to charge your phone at the on-stage outlet during the two intermissions.

But before long the entire house is pitch black, as all lights are shut while alarmed voices in the air gasp at their vision of the ghost of Hamlet's father, the murdered King of Denmark.

Oscar Isaac's loose cannon of a Hamlet struts aggressively across the stage with such animated physicality that it's not a far stretch when he feigns madness while plotting against his uncle, Claudius, for gaining the crown of Denmark by killing his father and marrying his mother.

So his mad scenes are played pantless, with the backside portion of his black briefs fully in view. If that's not enough, at one point he emerges from that upstage bathroom wearing a toilet seat cover as a collar.

Gayle Rankin (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Matching him for toughness and derangement is Gayle Rankin's terrific Ophelia. With a commanding presence, she fully commits to some pretty unusual staging, like when Gold has her binging on a tray of lasagna and then purging it out in the toilet. (The audience is spared the witnessing of the actual purging.)

Perhaps the most talked-about scene in this production occurs when her Ophelia pours piles of soil over the corpse of her father, Polonius (Peter Friedman in corporate mode), and then grabs a garden hose and allows it to soak the two of them as she lies next to him. Then, after they're suitably muddy (as is the stage's carpeting), they pop up as the gravediggers and play out some well-polished comedy.

Ritchie Coster does a fine job of handling an interesting track, playing the ghost, Claudius and an actor hired by Hamlet to portray a Claudius-like murderer in a play, so that he may watch his uncle for a guilty reaction. (Not quite pulled off, given the casting.)

Charlayne Woodard is a quietly dignified Queen Gertrude and Anatol Yusef's Laertes brims with youthful hot-headedness.

Despite some unpredictably over-the-top ideas, the fine ensemble never loses touch with the serious emotions of Shakespeare's masterpiece. This may not be a Hamlet for first-timers, but it's fun, daring and just a bit weird.

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From This Author Michael Dale