Theater archives

Michael Cumpsty’s ‘Hamlet’: Proof That the Great Dane Doesn’t Have to Be a Dog


After everything that directors have done to Hamlet over the decades—and what haven’t they?—the key question of any production still remains: Who’s playing the role; i.e., does this Hamlet have a Hamlet? The good news at CSC is that the answer, thanks to Michael Cumpsty, is an emphatic yes. And since Brian Kulick’s a director who actually seems to like Shakespeare, the bad news is on the whole less bad than usual—certainly better than any of the half-assed, anti-acted Hamlets we’ve seen from England in recent years. Though Kulick’s simple ideas of how to animate the play are sometimes groaningly obvious, they also often have the lucid straightforwardness that is the virtue of simplicity. Yes, the opening takes place while the audience mills about on the stage floor, with Horatio pursuing the Ghost through the crowd, which causes a long hiatus while we’re seated. And, yes, it all takes place in a Peter Brookish white box, its walls built to get trashed and graffiti-sprayed as Denmark’s crises escalate. Then, too, one of Kulick’s best casting ideas—Herb Foster as a crisp, haughty bureaucrat of a Polonius—is nullified by one of his worst: setting the gifted comic actor Robert Dorfman to rant, whine, and writhe, a Claudius out of a Chuck Jones cartoon.

Against all this, there’s Cumpsty, playing the Prince as an articulate, suffering human being, rather than the usual walking footnote to somebody else’s dimwit theory. He manages, skillfully, one of the trickiest balancing acts in theater: to live this role feverishly while speaking it to make poetic sense. The achievement’s especially heartening because Cumpsty himself has been known to substitute generalized shouting for acting in verse; tall men with big, resonant voices have that temptation. Here, he and Kulick don’t succumb to it. Neither does Karl Kenzler’s dashing, hotheaded Laertes; Caroline Lagerfelt’s cunningly demure Gertrude and Kellie Overbey’s helpless mouse of an Ophelia enrich the picture.