Kevin Kline shines in weak `Hamlet'

Hamlet Tragedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Liviu Ciulei. A monochrome portrait of Kevin Kline's Hamlet stares out from the cover of the Playbill for the Public/ Newman Theater. The gaze is fixed in concentration. The expression of penetrating intelligence reflects the searching nature of Mr. Kline's performance. In keeping with Mr. Kline's previous work on stage and in such films as ``Sophie's Choice,'' it is a performance of many admirable qualities. In classic terms, it has yet to realize the potential the actor exhibited in his Henry V and Richard III for the New York Shakespeare Festival.

A good many of the difficulties in the present revival spring from the directorial concept imposed by Liviu Ciulei (currently the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis).. Mr. Ciulei has chosen to move the time of the action forward to the late 1800s. The benefits of the decision are not readily apparent. Sartorially, they allow William Ivey Long to outfit the soldiery in uniforms that may remind some spectators of a Data General TV commercial. The revival features a huge, forward-tilted cyclorama onto which lighting designer Jennifer Tipton has projected a series of muted pastel skyscapes. Scenic designer Bob Shaw's mobile gilded pillars create an abstract sense of changing locales.

Whether occupying the center of the action or relegated to the sidelines, Mr. Kline preserves a detachment that helps intensify the effect of Hamlet's mounting emotional turmoil. The prince who is recalled by Ophelia as ``the observed of all observers'' has become the observer of all observed. Mr. Kline's gracefully spoken Hamlet asserts his royalty by merely embodying it. Whether playful or bitingly sardonic, his wit is framed by intelligence. Outraged at first by woman's frailty and moved at long last to action by his uncle's crimes, Kline's Hamlet encompasses the extraordinary emotional gamut of the role. That his performance seldom proves irresistibly moving may result from the aforementioned Ciulei directorial scheme as much as from any other cause.

Mr. Ciulei repeatedly risks distraction with fussy side-effects. Approaching Claudius (Harris Yulin) with his request to leave Denmark, Laertes (David Pierce) crosses the stage in a Teutonic goose step. The Player King (Jeff Weiss) has been encouraged to parody 19th-century ham acting, thus presumably heightening the point of Hamlet's advice to the players. Hamlet himself, as co-author and impresario of the playlet he calls ``The Mousetrap,'' prepares for the diversion by applying clown makeup. At the beginning of the closet scene, Gertrude (Priscilla Smith) removes a brunette wig to reveal gray hair. Ophelia's (Harriet Harris) mad scene is played at the royal dinner table. Such is the nature of Mr. Ciulei's approach.

The production is not without rewards. Leonardo Cimino comes off best. His pompously politic Polonius amusingly combines platitudinous paternalism with the compliance of a professional yes-man. Mr. Yulin almost to the end preserves the public composure with which Claudius conceals his growing remorse. Other performances are adequate within the limits of a mainly prosaic reading. Besides those mentioned, the cast includes Richard Frank (Horatio), Mr. Weiss (in the triple roles of Ghost, Player King, and Osric), Randle Mell and David Cromwell (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), Peter Van Norden (First Gravedigger), and Peter Crook (Fortinbras). B. H. Barry staged the climactic duel (now an outdoor fencing match) with his customary expertise.

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