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‘Hamlet,’ Starring Kevin Kline, Opens at the Public Theater

March 10, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ In a theater season that has produced a ″Marriage of Figaro″ on roller skates and a high-tech, punk rock ″Caligula,″ it’s a relief to report that the New York Shakespeare Festival’s revival of ″Hamlet″ is a triumph of clarity and common sense.

This is no-frills Shakespeare, free of the foolishness and gimmicks that marred and obscured those other classics earlier in the year. What director Liviu Ciulei has done, with the help of a fluid, multi-columned set by Bob Shaw and the sensitive lighting of Jennifer Tipton, is simply allow the story to be told. He lets Shakespeare do the work, pushing that incredible language to center stage where it belongs.

He also has the assistance of a remarkable cast, led by Kevin Kline, whose classical drama training at the Juilliard School and four seasons of touring with the Acting Company, have primed him to play Hamlet. The actor, now at the peak of his powers, makes the most of this opportunity.

Kline brings a quiet intelligence and grace to the title role. His soliloquies are not ham-handed histrionics but thoughtful, one-sided discussions as the young prince tries to work out a course of action to avenge his father’s death.

Take that old chestnut, ″To be, or not to be.″ Kline sits on a stylish wooden chair, leans forward and talks earnestly to the audience about life and death. Theatergoers are taken quietly into his confidence as he struggles to decide what he should do to the man who has murdered his father, married his mother and taken the throne.

The actor doesn’t neglect the emotional or physical aspects of the role either. One of the best moments in the play occurs in the gravediggers scene when Hamlet cradles the skull of Yorick, the old court jester from his childhood. It’s an affecting moment and Kline plays it slowly, drawing out the poignance of the situation.

Kline is also adept at the physical requirements of the play. His face painted clown-white, the actor, feigning madness, scampers around the stage during the play-within-the-play that proves his uncle’s guilt.

The five-act play has been staged with only one intermission but interest rarely flags. Ciulei lets the tension build to the final scene that includes the swordfight with Laertes. It’s a battle that fight director B.H. Barry has superbly staged and one which scatters terrified members of the king’s court all over the stage.

Shaw’s settings consist of a few antique tables and chairs and those columns which glide effortlessly back and forth across the stage.

The production’s one abberation is the late 19th-century costumes by William Ivey Long. They aren’t a distraction although they make the production seem more Teutonic than Scandinavian.

Kline doesn’t have a monopoly on the acting honors. Leonardo Cimino plays Polonius as a little busy bee of a man with a malicious sting. Harris Yulin turns Claudius into a panic-stricken monarch whose misdeeds have produced more than he has bargained for, while Priscilla Smith makes Gertrude a weary, weepy queen. Harriet Harris captures the agitation of Ophelia without turning the role into a caricature, while Richard Frank makes Horatio, Hamlet’s steadfast friend, into something a good deal more than the usual cipher.

Ciulei and company have provided an unfussy, straightforward examination of a classic. Three cheers for the director’s uncluttered concept and the stylish and sparkling clear way it has been executed.

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