Winter has just begun in New York, but already the Public Theater is looking toward summer: The nonprofit announced on Thursday that in June it would begin presenting an extended run of Shakespeare’s great tragedy “Hamlet” in Central Park.
The production, which will be the fifth “Hamlet” in the 61 years of Free Shakespeare in the Park, will star Ato Blankson-Wood, a 38-year-old actor who was a member of the ensemble in a production of “Hair” in the park in 2008, and who has since starred there in musical adaptations of “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It.” In 2020, Blankson-Wood was nominated for a Tony Award for “Slave Play.”
Kenny Leon, a much-in-demand director who this season directed revivals of “Topdog/Underdog” and “Ohio State Murders” on Broadway, will helm the production, returning to the park after winning plaudits for his direction of “Much Ado About Nothing” during the summer of 2019.
“Hamlet” will be the only show in the park this summer — a reduction from the usual two-show schedule prompted by plans to renovate the Delacorte Theater, the open-air amphitheater where Free Shakespeare in the Park takes place. “Hamlet” will run for nine weeks, from June 8 to Aug. 6, after which the major renovation work is expected to begin; this winter, work in some ancillary areas is already underway.
The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, said he had been so impressed by Leon’s work on “Much Ado” that he asked him to pick a play he wanted to do next, and they settled on “Hamlet.” “It’s the greatest play ever written,” Eustis said, “so let’s give him a crack at Everest.”
Eustis also said he had high hopes for Blankson-Wood. “He’s a gorgeously charismatic performer, and the complexity of his inner life, and his ability to connect with an audience, is going to make him an extraordinary Hamlet,” he said. (Blankson-Wood has a background in musical theater, and the credits for this “Hamlet” include music composition by Jason Michael Webb. “I suspect his beautiful singing voice will not be completely wasted,” Eustis said of Blankson-Wood.)
Eustis said that the production would “have a contemporary feel,” but that the exact time and place where it will be set have not yet been determined. He said the cast would be diverse, but that it was “absolutely meaningful to Kenny and to me that our Hamlet is a young Black man who is torn between ideals of revenge and violence and ideals of forgiveness and understanding and even rationality, and in the pairing between those things is finding himself paralyzed.”
Eustis said his thinking about “Hamlet” had been influenced by “Fat Ham,” the most recent Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, which is a riff on the Shakespeare play set in the American South, and which will be running on Broadway this spring, produced in part by the Public. “I’m sure hoping that we’re going to be running ‘Fat Ham’ and ‘Hamlet’ at the same time,” Eustis said, “because those two plays talk to each other in a most beautiful way.”
In prepandemic years, the Shakespeare in the Park season was followed by a short-run Public Works production, usually on or around Labor Day weekend, which was a musical adaptation of a classic story employing a mix of professional and amateur actors. The last new Public Works production there was “Hercules,” in 2019, but Eustis said there were three in development. He said he expected there would be a Public Works production staged this summer, although he did not yet know when or where it would take place.