The New York Times

Page E12 of the November 3, 2007 Issue

Looks It Not Like the King? Well, More Like Burton | From First Arts Page | Reviews of Burton’s prince crowned him a worthy successor to Olivier and to Gielgud, whose own portrayal of Hamlet in 1936 had set the previous record for the play’s longest Broadway run. And there was that undisputable It factor. As Howard Taubman wrote in his review in The New York Times, “I do not recall a Hamlet of such tempestuous manliness.” | What crackles and sparks in the air of live theater can seem quaint and lifeless when captured directly on film, a fact of which Ms. LeCompte and company are well aware. Offering approximations of Ben Edwards’s simple original set and Jane Greenwood’s unobtrusive costumes, meant to suggest rehearsal clothes, the Wooster Group’s own “Hamlet” is largely a gesture-by-gesture duplication of what’s happening on the screen behind. | When, that is, you can make out what’s happening on the screen, where the actors have a way of suddenly fading into nothing but a pair of illuminated eyes or simply nothing at all, and where the whole mise-en-scène can suddenly turn snowy. Any sense of what Burton’s Hamlet was really like becomes as unreliable and mutable as memory. | As the Wooster ensemble renders to its best ability the exact stance and tone of the filmed actors—even rapidly moving to match a shift in camera angles—the effect is often stilted, antiquated and downright satiric. But every now and then one or another of the performers will seem possessed, for just a second or two, by the animating spirit of that long-ago performance. It’s like the moment at a séance when the table starts to rock. | This astral convergence is achieved with the help of some inspired earthly technology. The mechanical layering of sounds, in particular, is hauntingly effective, so that Mr. Shepherd and Burton sometimes seem to have merged voices. | Would that the potent magic of such moments—with the annotative visual wit that is a Wooster signature—were enough to sustain a full three hours of what is ultimately a very sophisticated form of karaoke. The live cast members are hemmed in by their roles as replicants. Since their first duty is to present only the shells of the performances they are imitating, they are only rarely able to fill those exteriors with a transforming interpretive force. | Granted, as the play progresses, a few of the actors, who inhabit multiple roles, seem to break away into something almost heartfelt, notably Ari Fliakos as Claudius (a part played on screen by Alfred Drake). And Kate Valk, the group’s brilliant longtime leading lady, is as always a marvel. Portraying both Gertrude and Ophelia, she channels and subtly warps the styles of the original actresses (Eileen Herlie and Linda Marsh) to evoke a vision of femininity unique to the 1960s. |  | Mr. Shepherd, who dazzlingly embodied the spirit of the choreographer William Forsythe two years ago in the Wooster Group’s “Poor Theater,” carries the heaviest burden, in playing Burton as Hamlet. Though he exudes solar heat and energy on his own, he is also inevitably “too much i’ the sun” (as Hamlet would say) of the flickering image of Burton.  |  | Since we can never entirely hear or see Burton through a whole scene, we don’t know exactly what Mr. Shepherd is responding to. We’re allowed access to what is only one half of an artistic dialogue. Mr. Shepherd’s Hamlet never takes flight as an individual creation. And I can’t honestly say that this production met the criterion I bring to any new production of Shakespeare: that it makes me hear familiar language through virgin ears. |  | Ms. LeCompte, it must be granted, stays unswervingly true to her central point of view, that of a 21st-century “archaeologist inferring a temple from a collection of ruins,” as the program notes say. This production maintains its intellectual distance by stopping and fast-forwarding the filmed action. (Remote-control icons are always on view.) Sometimes the word “unrendered” shows up on the screen, meaning a scene has been lost. This allows the troupe to fill the vacuum by checking their cellphones, reading magazines or, in one hilarious (and withering) sequence, running footage from the Kenneth Branagh movie “Hamlet” instead. |  | Yet what is of such priceless worth in this production—the evocation of the longing to know what a past performance was like—is established with great eloquence early on. I was quite happy (and occasionally rapturous) during the show’s first half. But by its second, I felt it had crossed the line from hypnotic into narcotic. And I found myself thinking more and more and more of Gertrude’s admonition to Polonius: “More matter, with less art.”  | HAMLET | By William Shakespeare; directed by Elizabeth LeCompte; sets by Ruud van den Akker; lighting by Jennifer Tipton and Gabe Maxson; sound by Geoff Abbas, Joby Emmons and Matt Schloss; video by Reid Farrington; costumes by Claudia Hill; production manager, Bozkurt Karasu; assistant to the director, Teresa Hartmann; technical director, Aron Deyo; fight coach, Felix Ivanov; movement coach, Natalie Thomas; Laertes’s songs by Fischerspooner; additional music by Warren Fischer; production stage manager, Buzz Cohen; general manager, Nicki Genovese; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Jenny Gersten; director of production/stage manager, Ruth E. Sternberg. A Wooster Group production presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Mara Manus, executive director, in association with St. Ann’s Warehouse. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, East Village; (212) 967-7555. Through Dec. 2. Running time: 3 hours.  | WITH: Dominique Bousquet (Nurse), Ari Fliakos (Claudius/Marcellus/Ghost/Gravedigger), Alessandro Magania (Attendant/Soldier/Banister), Daniel Pettrow (Bernardo/Rosencrantz/Guildenstern/Player Queen/Osric), Bill Raymond (Polonius), Scott Shepherd (Hamlet), Casey Spooner (Laertes/Rosencrantz/Guildenstern/Player King), Kate Valk (Gertrude/Ophelia) and Judson Williams (Horatio). |