STAGE REVIEW : Sledgehammer Has Trouble Finding Heart of Hamlet

Fasten your seat belts. Sledgehammer Theatre is providing a bumpy ride on the Bard tonight. A few thrills. A few spills.

Sledgehammer’s version of “Hamlet,” playing at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse through May 27, brings the sweet prince up to date by putting him in modern dress in a modern Denmark where secret service men lurk around the new dictator, Claudius, and massacred bodies, writhing in plastic bags, moan in pain as if beseeching Hamlet for release.

That’s the best part.

But, after doing a great job of setting up the social context that puts the pressure on Hamlet, director Scott Feldsher and dramaturge Bruce McKenzie, who plays Hamlet, fail to find the heart of the prince himself.


It’s not from lack of trying. Sledgehammer, a young, hard-working and, at times, visionary group, seems to have spared no time, expense or energy in mounting this 24-person plus production. They have worked on speaking the language musically, exactly as written, and their cuts have been, if anything, too minimal in a show that runs 5 1/2 hours, including two intermissions.

But too often they hand us shock rather than substance.

One can perhaps justify the scene where Hamlet masturbates on stage when he is faking madness to his nefarious uncle’s adviser Polonius--I’d say this supports madness.

And Hamlet urinating on stage in front of people he doesn’t like is a memorable way of showing his contempt for them.

But why does Hamlet half-rape Ophelia and his mother and one of the male players in the troupe of visiting actors all in short order? Is he sexually hung up on his mother as some theories go, sexually frustrated with Ophelia or just sexually indiscriminate and omnivorous, as his fondling of the actor suggests?

Instead of illuminating the text, Sledgehammer seems to be throwing even more questions into a story that evolves into a psychological mystery play for anyone who tackles it. These are on top of the questions that have never been resolved through centuries of debate:

Why doesn’t Hamlet kill his Uncle Claudius in revenge for Claudius’ killing of his father, as the ghost of his father asks him to?

Why does the man who cannot kill a murderer kill Polonius so easily with so little regret? Why does he mistreat Ophelia, when it is so clear, from the way he mourns her, that he loves her so well? What is at the heart of the strange ambivalence he has toward his mother?

There are as many answers as there are critics, actors and productions. And, although there are no “right” answers, there nevertheless needs to be some kind of answer within a given production.

The failure to provide clarity becomes the emptiness at the heart of this show. What, after all, can one make of a sexually uninhibited Hamlet, who seems prone to violence and yet shrinks from killing the man he hates?

It is such questions that make Hamlet one of the most enigmatic and greatest challenges for an actor. McKenzie, a gifted actor who is often a pleasure to watch, dances around the part, sometimes dazzlingly, but comes off as one in love with the words and text than in tune with it.

Still, if the production doesn’t pin down Hamlet himself, what it does extraordinarily well is make us recognize the universality of the work by pointing out societal parallels between the play’s world and our own.

If at times Sledgehammer seems to desecrate the text, at others it blows it wide open to reveal some nifty new insights, and, on a play as written about as this one is, that isn’t easy to do.

The production’s strength is its insights on Hamlet’s society. Its weakness is Hamlet itself. Intellect versus emotion.

There’s no question that, whatever the Old Globe Theatre does with “Hamlet” later this season, it is going to provide a contrast to this production.

Feldsher starts off on an inspired note by having costumer Cynthia Wood dress Claudius and his guards in military costumes. It’s an image that suggests that Claudius’ killing of his brother was done much in the spirit of our “modern” coups.

Whenever Hamlet’s ghost appears, after several strokes of what sounds like a great, clanging bell (Pea Hicks did the dramatic sound design), bodies writhing in plastic bags seem to materialize on the stage out of an icy mist, putting the king’s murder in context of the massacres that attend bloody changes of power.

We’re in “Poltergeist” time; these corpses tell us the dead king is asking for revenge not just for himself, but for the entire state of suffering Denmark.

An enormous picture of the new leader, Claudius, has been hung in Robert Brill’s sweeping and suggestively abstract set design, while the body of the dead king is set up for viewing like Lenin in his tomb in Red Square. Videos, designed by Dave Cannon, show Claudius making all-too familiar political commercials, ending with inane thumbs-up signs.

Also well serving the material is a top-notch local cast, beginning with Paul Eggington as a Claudius so deliciously smarmy that you find yourself half-attracted to this personality, which is supposed to repel you.

Andy Wynn brings authority and more than a whiff of the supernatural to the Ghost, Walter Murray is the epitome of decency as Hamlet’s honorable friend Horatio, and Robert Larsen is appropriately foolish as Polonius.

If Hamlet is the most complex character in this play, Hamlet’s love, Ophelia, who goes mad, and Gertrude, Hamlet’s ever-changeable mother, are not far behind.

And, although Susan Gelman is a lovely Ophelia and Ginny-Lynn Safford a striking Gertrude, their characterizations disturb for the same reason McKenzie’s does. They don’t quite make sense. The heart of Ophelia’s madness remains a mystery, and Gertrude is a total puzzlement, alternating from comic bawdiness to the shock of the innocent when Hamlet confronts her in her chambers.

Even so, this “Hamlet” is impressive to the eye and the ear. If it misses the mark emotionally, that fault can be ascribed to the overreaching of a young, talented and ambitious company.

If Sledgehammer survives this enormous project and prospers, it should think about returning to “Hamlet” in future years when the cast can handle the play’s emotional vastness.