An Effective `Hamlet' from Director-Star Kevin Kline

Versatile actor's prince teeters between youth, maturity. THEATER: REVIEW

HAMLET is known as an indecisive character; so it's mildly ironic that a new production of his drama has arrived at the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival soon after a very decisive move by producer Joseph Papp. Mr. Papp rejected a National Endowment for the Arts grant earmarked for the festival's upcoming Festival Latino, because of new federal strictures on obscenity that Papp found too sweeping and restrictive. Future relations between Papp's organization and the endowment remain in doubt, but Papp has drawn both praise and alternate financial support in the immediate wake of his decision.

When he isn't embroiled in public dispute with a government agency, Papp puts on plays by Shakespeare and others; his largest current project is a Shakespeare Marathon, presenting all the Bard's dramatic works over a period of several years. The new ``Hamlet'' marks Installment 13 in this series, and it's one of the better entries - which comes as a relief after the previous offering, a disappointing ``Macbeth'' with Raul Julia.

Kevin Kline, who plays Hamlet, is a versatile enough talent to hop from movies like ``I Love You to Death'' and ``A Fish Called Wanda'' to Shakespeare's most celebrated role, and to direct the play, as well.

I was apprehensive when it was first announced that Mr. Kline would both direct and star in the production, since his earlier appearance in a Papp production of ``Hamlet,'' several years ago, was rather tame. His appearance in the Marathon's ``Much Ado About Nothing'' a couple of summers ago was also less than exciting. Although many critics enjoyed it, I found myself nostalgic for an earlier phase in his career, when his ``Richard III'' was so staggeringly good that it appeared to signal the arrival of a major new Shakespeare interpreter.

It pleased me that Kline and Papp were taking another crack at ``Hamlet'' together, but I felt it would be more prudent for another director to supervise the proceedings.

Things have worked out well, however. Though Kline's new ``Hamlet'' is a bit uneven and tends to drag in spots, it has a solid conception at its core, and most of its interpretations are as clear as the proverbial (and too rare seen) crystal.

Although the action still takes place at Elsinore Castle, Kline's production uses costuming and certain props to indicate a modern-day resonance. The guards introduce this element with the pistols they wear in the first scene, and, while the Ghost wears traditional kingly robes, many characters wear ordinary suits and dresses. Hamlet walks around in plain, unassertively modern clothing that fits his introspective personality and stands halfway between the standard business attire of Polonius and the Old World-style medals on Claudius's lapel.

The performances stand out well in the relatively simple environment that Kline, scenic designer Robin Wagner, lighting designer Jules Fisher, and costumer Martin Pakledinaz have fashioned.

Kline gives us a Hamlet who's youthful yet not childlike, verging on real maturity but not quite there yet, particularly during his antic mad scenes. As both star and director, Kline occasionally seems to literalize Hamlet's position on the brink between youth and adulthood, decision and indecision, filial devotion and vengeful determination. There are times when he actually teeters - dangling over the edge of the Players' stage, and falling (more than once) into waiting arms that save him from what would otherwise be a hard landing on a hard floor. This is a Hamlet who never bores us with his indecision, but who never seems too assertive, either. It's a finely balanced performance.

The acting is still better in the most important secondary roles. Brian Murray is a Claudius at once kingly and corrupt, oblivious to the import of his own high crimes except during the privileged moment of his attempt at prayer. Josef Sommer, always a fine actor, makes Polonius uncommonly fresh and amusing, even though he brings little that's really new to his interpretation. Diane Venora is a powerful Ophelia when she doesn't go a trifle overboard with the role, and Dana Ivey is a queenly Gertrude; also effective are Peter Francis James as Horatio and MacIntyre Dixon as the Clown, among others.

The production doesn't always work as smoothly as it should. The play-within-the-play is superbly done, for instance, prompting us to watch the faces of Claudius and Gertrude as sharply as Hamlet does - until Claudius's outburst, which seems too abrupt, and the resulting confusion, which is self-consciously staged. The production's unhurried speed also takes a toll in the second act, when some tightening of the pace would be in order. In all though, this is a sturdy production. It stands Papp's ambitious marathon once more in good stead.

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