There is nothing in the world like a Kenny Leon-directed Delacorte Theatre, Shakespeare In the Park production, presented by The Public Theater. Leon always brings the creativity, modern times and the Afrocentric flair that make you sit and stare. His latest spectacular spectacle is “Hamlet” in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre, where it is one of the final productions for the season—prior to the space’s renovation and reopening in 2025. What a fitting sendoff to the space to have the brilliance of Leon on full, glorious display.
Under Leon’s imaginative leadership, the play opens with a military-style funeral, with a casket on stage and a large portrait of a Black man in uniform displayed on the wall. A quartet is singing acapella at the service and taking the audience to church. Leon always puts a very distinctive mark on his production from the moment the action starts.
We come to find out that the funeral is for the king and we meet an assorted cast of characters including a distraught Hamlet, the dead king’s son; Claudius, the dead king’s brother; and Queen Gertrude, Claudius’ once sister-in-law and now wife. Claudius and Queen Gertrude are worried about Hamlet and his prolonged grieving for his father. Later we meet Horatio, who shares that he has seen the dead king, but that the king would not speak to him. Hamlet decides to go to where his father’s spirit was spotted. Projected onto a building, the king’s spirit speaks to Hamlet, explaining how he was murdered by his brother in the garden while he was asleep. Hamlet then sets a plot to expose Claudius and avenge his father’s death.
Everyone knows that Shakespeare’s words are powerful, stunning, and mesmerizing to hear. What makes them continue to be all those things is when they are spoken by a capable cast, and that is exactly what you will find in this production. Actor Ato Blankson-Wood delivers Hamlet’s iconic “To be, or not to be” soliloquy and other moments with a marvelous intensity. If there is one actor who is an expert in his riveting delivery of Shakespeare’s work and the classics in general, that would be John Douglas Thompson. His Claudius is amazing! He delivers the complex emotions that his character of Claudius is going through with such depth and power, you will be floored. He speaks Shakespeare’s words with such comfort, they seem to spill out of his mouth as if they were everyday speech. Lorraine Toussaint is marvelous as Gertrude. Solea Pfeiffer is poignant as Ophelia.
As always, Leon’s use of non-traditional, interracial casting works beautifully. Other members of this memorable cast include Daniel Pearce as Polonius, Nick Rehberger as Laertes, Warner Miller as Horatio, along with a stunning ensemble cast.
Every member of this cast holds their own, delivering their lines with precision and at times, delightful humor. The mind of Kenny Leon is on full display during that famous scene where Hamlet instructs the actors to recreate the murder of the king. It’s like no scene you have seen in Shakespeare—as hip hop and rap are utilized to bring home the point.
There is a joy and excitement that accompanies you as you sit in the outdoor theater in Central Park and watch this amazing performance happening under the stars. Oh, and of course, it’s free! “Hamlet” will run through August 6 only. For more info, visit www.publictheater.org.