Blankson-Wood (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Leon is the toast of New York theater—a director who might yet do greater
things and push the theatrical envelope even more. For this past season, he
has directed the revival of Top Dog/Underdog and the Ohio State
Murders on Broadway. And he has had 10 other Broadway credits, not to
mention his Off-Broadway work.
his latest project, the free Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet at
the Delacorte Theater, fell short of his other theatrical ventures.
Pearce, Ato Blankson-Wood (Photo: Joan Marcus)
main problem with the production was that it had no clearly defined political
center. Leon jettisons the character Fortinbras, that son of Norway’s King
Fortinbras, who Hamlet Sr. killed in battle before the play began. Although
Fortinbras often is cut to streamline a production, in Leon’s revival, the
omission dulls the edge of the drama.
refresher on Shakespeare’s first scene can point out why. As Hamlet opens,
Hamlet Sr. is already dead, having been poisoned by his scheming brother
Claudius. Claudius does a power grab for his brother’s crown and hastily
marries his widow, much to young Hamlet’s horror and disgust. To complicate
this court situation, a war is brewing. Young Fortinbras wants revenge for his
however, chose to replace this opening scene with his own invented one, in
which the late Hamlet’s funeral is re-enacted. While this was visually
arresting, it leaves a political vacuum in the play. Audience members who are
familiar with the play could easily fill in the dots; but newbies to the play
would most likely be confused, not knowing the political backdrop to the Hamlet
it was extremely hard to contextualize this production. Without Shakespeare’s
original political situation anchoring the story, one had to speculate on what
Leon was up to: was he projecting America as it is today during the Biden
administration? Or was he focusing more on the aftermath of the January 6th
insurrection of the Capitol and what precipitated it? Whatever Leon’s vision
was for his Hamlet, he dramatically hamstrung himself by cutting
Shakespeare’s first scene.
production’s strong suit was its acting. Ato Blankson-Wood portrayal of Hamlet
was fascinating to watch as his character wasn’t just visited by his father’s
ghost but possessed by it. Beyond this strange interpretive twist to
the protagonist, Blankson-Wood proved that he had the acting chops to go the
distance with this most challenging role (In an uncut version, the character
Hamlet has 1495 lines to deliver).
plum role aside, the rest of the cast delivered the theatrical goods. The
renowned Shakespeare actor John Douglas Thompson turned in his
characteristically fine portrait of a Shakespeare character (Who doesn’t
remember his Shylock at The Polonsky Shakespeare Center?), this time nailing
Claudius as a slick politician and smooth-talking seducer of the widow
Gertrude. Lorraine Toussaint, as Gertrude, was convincing as a woman torn
between being Hamlet’s doting mother and the new wife of Claudius. Warner
Miller’s Horatio was the epitome of loyalty, even though the pruning of his
final speech in Act 5 robbed him of his best lines. Daniel Pearce’s Polonius
was fittingly garrulous. And Solea Pfeiffer, as Ophelia, conveyed the tragic
confusion of her character, a young woman mercilessly manipulated by her father
and Claudius’. The rest of the cast was spot-on, supporting the principals
without overshadowing them.
Toussaint, John Douglas Thompson (Photo: Joan Marcus)
it came to the production values, the creatives were on the same page. Leon
recycled Beowulf Boritt’s set from his 2019 Central Park production of Much
Ado About Nothing. Whereas it looked fresh and inviting at the Delacorte
in its debut, the same properties were now likely to send shivers down your
spine. The architectural frame of the estate was askew, with its American flag
hung limply and a STACEY ABRAMS 2020 sign badly ripped. Only a stately
portrait of late Hamlet’s father was positioned straight. Of course,
one gets the message loud and clear: Hamlet Sr. was a strong leader who kept
the country together, and since his untimely death, it has precipitously
designer Jessica Jahn’s outfitted the actors in costumes that meshed with their
personalities and social station. Allen Lee Hughes lighting design ensured
that all the performers were spotlighted in their key stage moments,
including—you guessed it--Hamlet’s iconic to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy.
Whether it was Hughes’ idea or Leon’s to activate the headlights on the parked
S.U.V. when the Ghost spoke, it was a memorable touch and added an eerie
supernatural vibe to the Ghost scenes.
in and around 1600-01, the 400 year-old play has been staged countless times
over the years, and no question that it’s difficult to come up with a
compelling way to get the old war horse up and running today. If Leon doesn’t
altogether succeed with his revival of the great tragedy, he should be
commended for taking on this play that has intimidated artists since its
premiere in Shakespeare’s day.
can only hope that Leon will give Shakespeare another go in the future.
Although the Delacorte Theater is planned for a renovation after this season
closes, it is scheduled to reopen for the 2025 season. It would be terrific if
Leon, with his multi-faceted theatrical talent, returned to Central Park with a
new vision for a Shakespeare play. Time will tell.
the Delacorte Theater in Central Park
more information on upcoming productions at The Public Theater, visit
time: 2 hours with intermission.