NEW YORK - The Wooster Group's production of "Hamlet" at the Public Theater is extremely interesting. It's almost as interesting as "Hamlet" itself.
The Wooster Group, which is as much of a downtown institution as an experimental theater company can be, has tackled everyone from Chekhov to Grotowski, but this is its first Shakespeare. It will come as no surprise to aficionados that "The Wooster Group Hamlet," as it's billed on the program, has more in common with other Wooster Group presentations than it does with other "Hamlet" productions.
Yet one "Hamlet," in particular, casts a provocative shadow on this one: the filmed version of John Gielgud's 1964 Broadway production, starring Richard Burton. The film, by turns altered, partially erased, speeded up, slowed down, or radically interrupted by a screenful of staticky snow, plays on the back wall throughout, as the Wooster actors imitate, parody, comment upon, or ignore the ghostly presences behind them.
At first, the effect feels jokey, even gimmicky, especially when the live Hamlet onstage, Scott Shepherd, directs the video operator to "fast-forward a bit here," or "skip this Ophelia stuff" - a necessary deletion because the Wooster Group's Kate Valk plays both Ophelia and Gertrude, and she can't do both at once. The jokiness is underscored by the live actors' jerky movements in imitation of the screened images' stops and starts, a style that registers as a comic one before it invites reflection on deeper layers of meaning.
But those deeper layers do begin to unfold, and part of what's fascinating is that the production, directed with cool intelligence by Elizabeth LeCompte, provokes a variety of thoughts about "Hamlet," about the theater, about the passage of time, and about much more besides, without ever dictating just what those thoughts should be. Clearly some of this connects in a primal way with the text; "Hamlet" is so full of ghosts that it feels inevitable to see Burton's image as a ghostly one, a specter of a vanished performance, and then to ponder how the performance we're experiencing will vanish as well.
Some images, though, seem less grounded in Shakespeare and his text. I'm still wondering why a silent nurse often appears onstage - something about sickness, death, rottenness in Denmark? And why have one actress play Gertrude and Ophelia, and play them both in an exaggerated, stylized way? Something about how Shakespeare saw women and presented them to us? Sure. But what exactly?
Such questions continue to percolate through the performance, sometimes appealingly and sometimes annoyingly. Meanwhile there's plenty happening onstage to keep us busy on different levels: a few Fischerspooner-style songs from group member Casey Spooner's brooding Laertes, wheeled furniture for the actors to push hectically around as they re-create the film's camera angles, extra video screens at the sides with not-so-random images of crosses, swords, bodies. And Shepherd, almost to our surprise, in the midst of all this somehow does create a Hamlet worth watching: frighteningly insightful, wearily watchful, and darkly humorous.
One more Hamlet. One more ghost. And if, ultimately, I'd still rather explore the infinite depths of this play through a production that engaged it directly, rather than using it as a springboard for commentary and allusion, I know that this one has still added something worth having to my forever inadequate store of reactions to Shakespeare. The next time I see "Hamlet," I'll see this "Hamlet," too - and I'll be reminded that every "Hamlet," not just this one, walks in the shadows of ghosts long gone.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.