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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 22, 2001

edition of U.S.

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Review: `Hamlet’

Jared Harris, who is making his New Jersey Shakespeare

Festival debut as "Hamlet," has a distinct advantage over

other actors who have stepped into the coveted role. When he sees

the ghost hovering over Elsinore Castle (through the magic of digital

wizardry), he recognizes him not only as the father of Hamlet but

as his own real-life father — the renowned Irish actor, Richard

Harris. His formidable image and voice — a most imposing


— is a nice jump start for the younger Harris who has formerly

cut his teeth in "Hamlet" by playing Fortinbras with the Royal

Shakespeare Company in 1990. Harris also previously impressed this

critic with his excitingly idiosyncratic performances with the New

York Shakespeare Festival (particularly in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2).

Now he energizes Hamlet with a thrust of unexpectedly disorienting


This may not be enough to make the young man the enigma he is meant

to be. And those famed soliloquies on his mind, notably "To Be

or Not to Be," are disposed of as if induced by a form of


schizophrenia. I suspect that the brooding Dane’s disposition will

survive Harris’ substitution of petulance for nobility, cynical


for melancholia, and willfulness for ambiguity.

All variables, except perhaps the loss of nobility, are welcome, as

long as they are eventually validated. Unorthodox as many of them

seem, I believe Harris does eventually validate his choices as a most

unusual Prince of Denmark.

It is certainly easy to accept this Hamlet’s defect — his slowness

to act — given Harris’s almost playful wallowing in the intrigue

that will ultimately lead him and those around him to tragedy. That

we can sense the terror in Hamlet’s confrontation with the ghost (it

was a familiar face, after all) is easy to accept. Harris is


effective revealing his distrust of and disillusionment with Ophelia,

his discovery of the intentions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern


Jackson and Adam Stein), and, indeed, his deranged mental state. They

are all, under the circumstances, more indicative of this decidedly

neurotic, but not particularly morbid, Hamlet.

Some of the undercurrents of doom and gloom may still be perceived

by those who dig deep enough into William Shakespeare’s famed tragedy.

Harris, under the crisp and clean direction of Tom Gilroy, chooses

to wade schematically through Hamlet’s initially immature


while wearing his inner anguish on his sleeve. Director Gilroy, who

is making his festival debut, is a co-founder and co-artistic director

(along with Lili Taylor, who plays Ophelia) of the theater company

Machine Full. He seems to have focused most of his attention on


Hamlet’s basically unstable nature.

Gilroy has also seen to it that the Danish establishment

is simply but effectively entrenched within set designer Michael


vision: A huge full moon is projected onto a black background, set

within a pale, abstractly washed picture frame. A pair of red


curtains is used to excellent effect for casting shadows, indicating

scene changes, and even occasionally upstaging Hamlet’s petulance.

Rottenness in Denmark, after all, needn’t be confined to any century,

so long as there’s a monarchy around willing to act rotten. Gilroy’s

staging is exceptionally fluid, transporting us quickly to the


throne rooms, and churchyard. The duel scene, with its gathered


is realistic and quite thrilling, helped by the fine work of fight

director Rick Sordelet.

While designer Miranda Hoffman’s costumes, particularly Hamlet’s black

boatneck T-shirt and pants, make everyone look like they’re at a


party, it is the blank verse and prose spoken by other members of

the cast that tend to be a little sleep-inducing over the play’s three

and one-half hour course. However, Harris’s bravely idiosyncratic

behavior (he moons Polonius), if not so much his often garbled speech,

should work wonders with audiences who are apt to be too much in awe

of the play and the role.

The perennial wonder of "Hamlet" is that it gives the actor,

as well as the director, choices. Apparently Harris and Gilroy have

made a great effort to bridge the antiquity of the play by emphasizing

the abstract and hallucinatory. Only in the second (and better) half,

and specifically during the duel with Laertes (Jason Weinberg), do

we see Hamlet resort slightly to ease and guile in support of his

agenda. Whether or not Harris enters the ranks of great Hamlet


he is always ready with the unexpected, thereby keeping us involved.

Making their festival debuts are Maggie Low, who succumbs to the


side of Gertrude, and Lili Taylor, who goes off her rocker with a

caseload of ticks, fits, and starts, as Ophelia. Taylor, it should

be noted, is not your everyday actress (Broadway’s "The Three

Sisters;" film "I Shot Andy Warhol") and she is no


Ophelia, finding, as she does, refuge in enough quirky body language

to indicate Ophelia’s serious physical and mental abnormalities.

Bill Raymond’s vaguely sinister take on Claudius, "a king of shred

and patches" grows on you. But this cannot be said of William

Bogart’s Polonius, whose famed advice to his son and others gets


off without the prerequisite wit and humor. Of the two gravediggers

— Eric Hoffman and Jay Leibowitz (who doubles as Bernardo) —

Hoffman also plays the role of the Player King with panache and


Other players are less interesting than they should be, allowing us

to concentrate on a very interesting Hamlet.

Whatever it is that Gilroy has pulled off, we are certainly pulled

less into the disintegrating political aspects of a royal family than

into the emotional turbulence of madness and tragedy. Would that he

could have used a little more digital wizardry to replace some of

the supporting cast.

— Simon Saltzman

Hamlet, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival’s F.M. Kirby


36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $18 to $38. Performances

continue through September 2.

For the complete calendar of events in central New Jersey, go


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