The old Shakespeare debate smolders on. Is the Bard relevant? Should he be? Do well-worn characters like Hamlet have anything to tell us in our postmodern, postliterate period?
It's an argument that leaves me cold. Shakespeare is still the towering figure in English drama, and his work needs no adornment. Yet revisionism can be fun, and even enlightening.
So either way is all right with me. I won't choose between, say, the crystal-clear ''King Edward III'' and the upside-down ''Pericles'' I've heartily enjoyed within the past year - even if one did play it straight while the other placed the action in a madhouse and included a fashion show.
Revisionism may be on the upswing, though. The newest ''Hamlet'' in New York is a lively free-for-all of reshuffled scenes, no-show characters, and filmlike transitions. And it comes from the CSC repertory company, of all places - a theater that normally takes the classics on their own terms, mounting full-length and faithful productions of such stage-busters as Goethe's ''Faust'' and Ibsen's ''Peer Gynt.''
What has possessed this talented troupe? According to director Christopher Martin, nothing sinister. The CSC often breaks open and rearranges a play during its rehearsals, he tells me, looking for new insights that will keep the work vivid and immediate. This time, it decided not to reassemble the show, but to share it with audiences in its dissected version. In time, Martin promises, the group will tackle ''Hamlet'' again in its normal state, as it has three times before. And everyone, from actors to spectators, will be fresher for this experience.
Sounds OK to me. And so does the production itself, although it has plenty of lumps, and seems amazingly long for its two-hour running time. (Yes, they've trimmed it a lot, too.)
If nothing else, Martin and company keep you on your toes just guessing what will happen next. Past experience is no guide to a production that begins with Hamlet popping out of Yorick's grave; buries Ophelia not once but twice; scatters Ghost scenes all through the evening; and forgets Horatio altogether. Most of the action is a long flashback, and the rearranged sequences twist and turn like troubled memories. Scenes often collide, overlap, or dissolve into one another - yes, like movies. As the program promises, it's Shakespeare ''for the cinematic age.'' There's not even an intermission.
What held me during the evening was the sheer audacity of it all (I mean, this is ''Hamlet,'' not ''Pericles'') and the vigorous images Martin has devised - the Ghost decked out like a bullying soldier, for example, and the Players turning out to be puppets.
What's missing is the Shakespearean architecture that, when left intact, joins the play's poetry and ideas into a truly timeless shape. Even with Martin's bold stagecraft and the engaging performances of his solid actors, including CSC regulars Noble Shropshire and Tom Spiller, the show eventually gets tedious. The essential business is mostly present, and the energy never lets up. But the intellectual and emotional momentum of the real thing don't quite survive Martin's manipulations.