Reviewed by David Spencer
As word has it, there are indeed pleasures aplenty to be experienced at the Public Theatre's first offering of Free Theatre in Central Park this summer. Oskar Eustis' production of Hamlet, on the Delacorte stage boasts a strong and, in the best sense, idiosyncratic cast; plus, in a kind of never-neverland updating that isn't era specific but uses certain cultural indicia to trigger contemporary association, it suggests not only a court, but a world in political turmoil. (This "non-specific update" approach seems to proliferate in Shakespeare productions these days, thanks, it would seem, to the influence of Brian Kulick, who introduced it to Public Theatre free Shakespeare something over a decade ago and has since taken it with him to the CSC, where he's now artistic director.) Most of the primary roles are splendidly and memorably acted, especially Claudius (a haunted yet driven Andre Braugher), Gertrude (Margaret Colin as an acutely image-conscious Royal), Polonius (Sam Waterston, a former Public Theatre Hamlet, playing less a dotty old man than everybody's favorite verbose Dutch uncle) and the Ghost/Player King/Gravedigger trio (Jay O. Sanders, who makes each a striking and distinct cameo).
But of course, for Hamlet to rock, you need a Hamlet who rocks, and the production has that in the mesmerizingly eccentric Michael Stulhbarg. His interpretation is a Prince "playing at" madness, but with a conviction that makes him not only manipulative and funny, as he trumps his targets, but disturbing when the role-playing seems to take over. If there's a drawback—and I have to confess, for me it wasn't insignificant—it's that Mr. Stuhlbarg's inventive nuances were so dazzling that I found them starting to draw attention to themselves as nuances, which had me thinking how cool the actor was for coming up with all that stuff, rather than feeling a stronger visceral connection to the drama because of them. Then again, in the context of exploring anew a classic verse drama known to almost everyone, that’s no doubt a very hard balance to achieve, and likely takes a lot more time to both rehearse and perform than allotted the stalwarts involved in this otherwise respectably successful production.
If Cirque du Soliel had a cheaper, less spectacular, less artfully conceived bus-and-truck tour, it would probably be akin to Cirque Dreams (an unrelated franchise) and their new entry Jungle Fantasy, whose life-in-the-wilds milieu primarily serves as a backdrop for a few full-costume puppetry bits, plus a number of (mostly) otherwise generic (if impressive) feats of gymnastic and acrobatic skill. Its slender thread of story has something to do with a Jungle Boy (Zachary Carroll) exploring the deep wonders with Mother Nature (Jill Diane), who, as his guide, sings a number of perfectly awful middle-of-the-road type pop songs written for the occasion (Jill Winters, who also composed the Muzaky score). How enthralling you find all this depends on your tolerance for two acts of (as Monty Python, quoted by my afternoon's companion, phrased it) putting things on top of other things, and variants such as putting people on top of other people, and the inevitable mixing and matching thereof. One must pause to note that while a certain number of child-free adults bailed during intermission, the children in the audience—one of whom was in my party—remained raptly attentive and responsive throughout. Not easy to hold kids' fascination like that, and it pays to remember that even the most familiar bit is new to somebody young enough...
Finally, there's Occupant by Edward Albee, having a delayed premiere (owing to the death of its intended star-to-be, Anne Bancroft) at the Signature Theatre. It's presented in the form of a simple/not-so-simple interview, conducted by "The Man" (Larry Bryggman), as the program calls him, of Louise Nevelson (Mercedes Ruehl), one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th Century. Since she died in 1988, this is, of course, a posthumous interview, but Mr. Albee doesn't concern himself with the metaphysical aspects that make this possible (presumably her representatives in the afterlife set all this up beforehand).
The play is refreshing, in the pantheon of Albee's other recent plays, in that he has abandoned his tacit but unmistakable hetero-bashing for an examination of artistic passion, fame and the vagaries of memory. In this regard he seems rather successful, not least because of his fond regard for Ms. Nevelson. She was, in real life, a friend of his, and even without documentary evidence, one senses that he has captured the essence of her outgoing and selectively, deliberately shocking personality quite well. The arc of the play is likewise simple: it amounts to an anecdotal history of her life, with the anecdotes centering on personal rather than historical pivot points. This allows both Ms. Nevelson and the audience to make time jumps and intuitive leaps that skip over many years and events, yet leave us with a layered impression of a complex woman.
Mr. Albee also indulges his penchant for splitting hairs about the meaning of words and phrases, and in this, he is far less successful. It amounts to tired, semantic, smartass banter that does little save mark time.
Pam McKinnon has directed with relative unobtrusiveness (entirely appropriate and even desirable for this kind of thing). Ms. Ruehl, herself having a magnetic and extravagantly charismatic persona, is the ideal actress to channel her subject. As to Mr. Bryggman...well, it's not quite fair to say he isn't her match, because the character, as written, isn't supposed to be...but you know what I mean. He's one of those efficient and available actors who does the job reliably yet without much inspiration, where you'd really like to see someone who could, even subtly and under the surface, cook on Ms. Ruehl's level. (At the very least you'd like to see a typecast talk show expert with theatre-moonlighting chops, like Dick Cavett.) All this opined, it’s likely not easy to get a high octane actor for a role that is so blatantly straight-line feeder and second banana—which is why actors like Mr. Bryggman stick around forever. Ah, well, as nearly always, he gets the point across and does no harm...