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To see or not to see? 3 ways Oscar Isaac saves ‘Hamlet’

Oscar Isaac is definitely the best part of The Public Theater's new production of "Hamlet."
Oscar Isaac (Hamlet) and Keegan Michael Key (Horatio) in The Public Theater's "Hamlet." Credit: Carol Rosegg
Oscar Isaac (Hamlet) and Keegan Michael Key (Horatio) in The Public Theater's "Hamlet." Credit: Carol Rosegg

It comes as no surprise that Oscar Isaac is the best part of the new production of “Hamlet” at the Public Theater.

The “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” breakout star, who actually honed his acting chops onstage in productions like Shakespeare in the Park’s “Romeo & Juliet” in 2007. In director Sam Gold’s take on Shakespeare’s most well-known tragic hero, he immediately distinguishes himself as both the show’s brightest bolt of light and its grounding rod.

But is Isaac alone worth the price of admission to a nearly four-hour show that, admittedly, has its tonal and directorial flaws along the way? Why don’t you decide by considering three of the best things about seeing Oscar Isaac as the great Dane.

The Fresh Prince of Denmark

From his first lines, Isaac is a breath of fresh air for the play, which begins clumsily in the dark. This is just the start of the questionable directorial choices.

Throughout, Isaac seems to be the actor most willing to deliver his Elizabethan English with a modern flair, delivering his lines easily and with plenty of charm. It’s impossible not to get a sense of Will Smith stepping into Bel Air with his Philly sensibilities, ready to turn everything on its head.

Going away to college, then returning at news of his father the king’s death (played with genuine depth by Isaac, who lost his mother this year) have made Hamlet a stranger in a strange land. Isaac is happy to play him as a man apart from his old life, making him the most dynamic point of any scene even against greater natural hams like Keegan-Michael Key (Horatio).

Sex Machina

Alas, “Hamlet” has the same problem with its women as the Public Theater’s previous major production, “Joan of Arc.” The plights of Ophelia (chaste and hapless as ever) and the Queen — the choices they make, if they make them at all — goes mostly unexamined.

Yes, the play is called “Hamlet” for a reason, but this seems unforgivable given this production’s modern look, full length and sheer talent, where all of that might have found room to ruminate.

But, hey, you’ve got Oscar Isaac running around half the time without pants. His madness seems to take the form of strutting about in briefs as he rants and raves, jumping over tables and standing on chairs. Who would hurry to cure him?

Alas, in the appreciated (if largely gratuitous) mud-wrestling scene with Laertes, he is fully clothed.

However, in a show with minimal costumes, props and set (this “Hamlet” could be confused for one of the many recent kitchen table dramas recently), Isaac does don actual fencing gear and a mask at one point. He even sings! Swoon.

Apocalypse Now

The challenge with “Hamlet” will always be familiarity. We not only know how it ends, we know many of the exact lines leading there.

Novelty is never quite enough, even if actors pop up in the audience or strip to their underwear or deliver lines on the toilet (though by the delightful Peter Friedman as Polonius) or play pipes onstage or even destroy lasagna with a butcher knife.

Gold’s choices never gel together, even if the pieces are enough to keep you in your seat until bows. But Isaac’s Hamlet does chart one path from start to finish, examining mortality through the lens of loss, buying time for reason through madness and seeking the affirmation of loyalty in his friends until the very end.

But even if you can’t trust the actors to stay on the same tonal page or the director to deliver on a single vision, you’ll still enjoy your nearly four hours with Oscar Isaac.

If you go
"Hamlet"
Through Sept. 3
The Public Theater, 435 Lafayette St.
$120+, publictheater.org