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Ato Blankson-Wood (Photo:  Joan Marcus)




By Deirdre Donovan


Ken 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.


Unfortunately, his latest project, the free Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet at the Delacorte Theater, fell short of his other theatrical ventures. 


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Daniel Pearce, Ato Blankson-Wood (Photo: Joan Marcus)


The 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.


A 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 father’s murder.


Leon, 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 myth.


Indeed, 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.


The 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).


This 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.


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Lorraine Toussaint, John Douglas Thompson (Photo: Joan Marcus)


When 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 deteriorated.


Costume 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. 


Written 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.


One 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.


Through August 6.

At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park

For more information on upcoming productions at The Public Theater, visit

Running time:  2 hours with intermission.