Hamlet in the Park

By Bob Cooley

TONY NOMINEE ATO BLANKSON-WOOD takes the stage as Hamlet in this season’s Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte, put on by the Public Theater. Photo by Bob Cooley.

Some of my actor friends may call me a Philistine for saying so, but I’ve always felt that Shakespeare is at his best when adapted for modern audiences. Truth be told, I’ve typically enjoyed reading the Bard’s work more than watching it on stage.

So many traditional presentations of Shakespeare’s work feel like they are being performed more for fellow players on the stage and less for the audience viewing the production. A mediocre production of his plays is a sorry sight and feels more akin to sitting through a very long improv class where the actors themselves are kept in stitches but the audience is the laughing stock.

That said, I’ve been lucky to have experienced several standout adaptations over the years. My pinnacle being Alan Cumming’s incredible one-person rendition of Macbeth, which set my teeth on edge (in the best way) staged by Tiffany and Goldberg.

That may seem neither here nor there, except to wear my heart upon my sleeve and state that seeing The Public’s productions of Shakespeare in the Park are always a treat.

Perhaps the experience is enhanced by sitting under the stars in Central Park, knowing that you are enjoying the evening with more New Yorkers than tourists, the consistently excellent staging and just being in the historic Delacorte Theater where over five million people have experienced free theater during over 150 production runs.

All the aforementioned are unique reasons to enjoy Shakespeare in the Park (and any are fair play enough to go), but probably the top draw is that these shows are put on with love for the audience. From the director to the fine cast, the tech crew to the prop-makers (and everyone involved), you often feel as much of the production as the players on the stage.

This season’s performance of Hamlet continues those traditions with standout performances, resetting the story in the current south (a discarded “Stacy Abrams 2020” campaign banner clues us to the setting), and the inclusion of some sublimely injected gospel and rap that helps anchor the production to its modern setting.

While the production is long, weighing in at over two hours and 45 minutes, it has been significantly shortened from the original 29,551 word, five-act, over four-hours (standard) run time. There indeed can be too much of a good thing.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s the CliffsNotes version. The show opens with the funeral for the King who was murdered by his brother Claudius (John Douglas Thompson), who then quickly marries the King’s widowed wife Gertrude (Lorraine Toussaint) and assumes the throne. The title character, Prince Hamlet (Tony nominee Ato Blankson-Wood), is visited by his father’s ghost, who sets him on a path of madness and revenge. Madness spreads to others and many deaths follow.

Director Kenny Leon’s production deftly balances the tradition of the story, imbuing it with contemporary cultural relevance, wit, gravitas and a reminder that the cycle of violence is a story as old as time.

The production has no lack of noteworthy performances. Among the leads, Blankson-Wood (Hamlet) delivers, in the twinkling of an eye, ranges from youthful hostility to supposed madness to deep soul-searching. Thompson’s (Claudius) performance is a masterclass in duplicity. Daniel Pearce lightens the load of the show with perfectly timed comic relief.

I think the singular failing of the show is that it underutilizes Solea Pfeiffer. In a production of stellar performances, Pfeiffer’s Ophelia stands out in her singing and monologue that subtly strains between madness, sorrow, clarity and rage.

The set design by Beowulf Boritt is clever and whimsical, with effective visual storytelling elements that give viewers a sense of place and time, with fun easter eggs (like the license plate that reads ELS NOR (Elsinore is the name of the palace, which is omitted from the text in this production). And Jessica Jahn’s costumes strike a great balance between the contemporary and classic.
Hamlet is currently playing at the Delacorte Theater until August 6th.

Postscript: Many sayings still used today come from Shakespeare’s texts. There are (at least) 10 of these in this article.

Bob Cooley is a photojournalist, commercial photographer, and communications strategist who lives in Greenwich Village, NYC. He’s spent over 35 years creating photography and stories for LIFE Magazine, Forbes, The Economist, Sports Illustrated, The Associated Press, and many others. 
You can see more of Bob’s work at bobcooleyphoto.com and new photography daily on Instagram @bobcooley