It's directed by Kenny Leon, whose production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in 2019 was such a hit. That production re-imagined the comedy in a near-future United States where a struggle for basic rights is ongoing. (As... well... as it just so happens... it is....)
When I walked into the Delacorte, it became clear that this production would be a sequel of sorts to Leon's last play in the park. The set--designed by Beowulf Boritt, who also designed Much Ado--looks like the estate we had seen previously in a comedy wrecked by some unknown cataclysm. The large brick house from Much Ado appears to be partially sunken into the ground. The flagpole that proudly waved Old Glory in the last production is tilted at an angle. While Much Ado featured an SUV rolling onto the stage, Hamlet shows an SUV mired in the earth.
Center stage at the beginning of the play is a flag-draped coffin, presumably of the dead King Hamlet, whose portrait also dominates the set. A quartet of vocalists comes out to sing, which fortunately also allows latecomers to be seated without disturbing the play too much. Then the play begins in earnest with the funeral of the dead king, and we get to meet the cast, led by Ato Blankson-Wood. As young Prince Hamlet, Blankson-Wood communicates the play's famous monologues in a straight-forward manner, clearly getting across the complex verse in a way that is relatable and easy to understand for the audience.
When it comes time for Hamlet to confront the ghost of his father, the production has a few tricks up its sleeve, which is why it's good Leon cut the opening scene of the script where some minor characters meet the ghost. Seeing this up front would have ruined the surprise later on in the play. Plus, Hamlet as we know it today is pieced together from three different texts, so it has to be cut if the audience is going to experience anything close to how the original play would have been performed. Overall, the production does a good job trimming the play, though some of the piece's most famous lines have to be altered to eliminate any references to it taking place in Denmark. (The production is whole-heartedly American.)
One of the joys of seeing Shakespeare in the Park is getting to watch a variety of tremendous actors in supporting roles, and this production is no different. The incomparable John Douglas Thompson (who recently won praise for his performance in Irish Rep's production of Endgame) plays Claudius, and he's easily the best Claudius I've ever seen. As the usurping king tries to pray for forgiveness, we see he is truly overcome by remorse, even as he is unable to take the next step and actually repent. His interactions with Lorraine Toussaint are sexy and filled with warmth, making us see immediately why she chose to marry him. Both of them have some comic interactions with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played perfectly by Mitchell Winter and Brandon Gill.
Additional comedy is provided by not just Greg Hildreth as the gravedigger, but by Daniel Pearce as Polonius. I previously saw Pearce as Macduff in a production the Public did of Shakespeare's Macbeth, and then later in another Public production, Jane Anderson's Mother of the Maid. As Polonius, Pearce milks the long-winded advisor for all he's worth. Fine performances are also delivered by Solea Pfeiffer who plays his daughter Ophelia and Nick Rehberger who plays his son Laertes.
This production also adds in some hip hop with Warner Miller's Horatio and with the players, led by Colby Lewis, reminding us that even gods cry. This summer will also be your last chance to see Shakespeare in the Park at the old Delacorte before it gets completely redone, so make sure you don't miss this wonderful production!