Stunning production of ‘Hamlet’ lights up the Delacorte Theater

Ato Blankson-Wood in "Hamlet," which is running at The Delacorte Theater.
Ato Blankson-Wood in “Hamlet,” which is running at The Delacorte Theater.
Joan Marcus

If there was ever a question as to whether you, as a theatergoer, need to see yet another production of “Hamlet,” considering Kenny Leon’s masterful staging of the play at the Delacorte, the answer is a resounding yes.

This beautiful, intelligent, and exciting production demonstrates the best of contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare, allowing it to celebrate the play and resonate with a modern audience. Leon doesn’t need to bend the bard to fit his concept, but rather trusts the language — and the audience — to feel the timelessness of the tale in the context of our world.

In the staging, Leon has transferred Elsinore to a semi-dystopian Atlanta rife with political strife, though he allows that to simmer ominously under the surface while the familial revenge tragedy plays itself out.

From the moment one walks into the theater, it’s clear that something is rotten. Beowulf Borrit’s set depicts a house sinking into the ground before our eyes. A tattered Stacey Abrams banner is in the front yard. Fans of Shakespeare in the Park may recognize that house and banner from the 2019, pre-pandemic production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” also designed by Borrit and directed by Leon, where Messina was transferred to Atlanta. Here, that same house, then in fine shape, stood as the backdrop to a tale of love and optimism. That was before the 2020 election and the rise of the darker undercurrents that have proven poisonous in our culture. The bright glow of youthful love that production promised has been snuffed out by now prevalent political posturing and deceit. Against this backdrop, more expressionistic now than realistic, Hamlet’s depression, rage, and urge to action is immediate and galvanizing from the first moments of the play.

For all the intelligence of the production, this is still Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and it is the language that drives the play. It’s clear that Leon and his extraordinary cast have invested in the text to the point that it is familiar yet with nuances that make one hear it fresh. Ato Blankson-Wood in the title role is powerful and vulnerable, a Hamlet whose soliloquies acquire a level of pure, fallible humanity that is instantly relatable. He consistently seems to be asking whether he is the only one who sees the amorality and corruption around him and at the same time conveying an innocence that ultimately drives his tragedy. It is a performance of great confidence and complexity that lets Blankson-Wood take his place among the most intriguing Hamlets or our time — and another reason why this production should be seen.

Leon has an original take on Ophelia as well. Often portrayed as delicate and fragile, Solea Pfeiffer portrays her initially as a strong and confident woman. Yes, she’s still in love with Hamlet and severely damaged by his cruel — and in this case borderline violent — rejection of her, but her ultimate madness is more a psychotic break apparently brought on by PTSD, and her suicide is all the more heartbreaking because of it.

Emotional unrest stalks the halls of Elsinore. Claudius seized the crown when he murdered Hamlet’s father (Hamlet’s impetus for revenge), but it sits uneasily on his head, and in his masterful performance in the role, John Douglas Thompson becomes increasingly unhinged as he tries to command events spinning out of control. Lorraine Toussaint is remarkable as Gertrude. Caught between her new husband and her son, it’s clear that Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius was politically expedient, and the force of her denial of the grim reality of her situation makes her oddly sympathetic.

The rest of the characters are at the mercy of this dysfunction. Daniel Pearce as Polonius is eager to attach himself to power for his safety and advancement, though it leads to his death. Mitchell Winter and Brandon Gill as Hamlet’s friends Rosencranz and Guildenstern, respectively, get caught up in the intrigue, and their willingness to betray Hamlet for their own advantage ultimately leads to their deaths.

Leon keeps the tension high — and the audience on the edges of their seats — throughout. It’s relieved intermittently by wonderful hip-hop music by Jason Michael Webb, and Greg Hildreth as the Gravedigger, whose comic scene with Hamlet is a bit of lightness before the play descends into its final tragedies that come fast and furious, leaving the stage littered with bodies, as per usual with “Hamlet.” Leon has cut Fortinbras at the end, who in the original arrives, surveys the corpses, and gives a speech about the senselessness and evil laid out at his feet. It’s a smart move, and one that keeps the unease and tension high, even as the cast gets their well-earned standing ovation.

“Hamlet” | The Delacorte at Central Park | Weds-Sun. 8 p.m., weather permitting through July 30 | Free | 2 hours, 45 mins, 1 intermission | Ticketing information avialable at