PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Michael Stuhlbarg

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12 May 2008

Michael Stuhlbarg
Michael Stuhlbarg
Aubrey Reuben

It's taken a while, but New York stage journeyman Michael Stuhlbarg will this year finally get to play the acme of theatre roles: Hamlet.

The production — now in rehearsals and set to begin at Central Park's Delacorte Theater on May 27 — will be the capper of a series of high-profile shows for soft-spoken Stuhlbarg, including the oft-extended Voysey Inheritance at the Atlantic Theatre Company, for which he won an Obie Award; Measure for Pleasure at the Public Theater; and Broadway's The Pillowman, for which he won a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination. It's a remarkable bit of unglamorous casting for the Public, which often fills its Central Park offering with stars recognizable to the film-going and television-viewing public. Stuhlbarg talked to Playbill.com about this ultimate reward for years of dues-paying.

Playbill.com: I know you're in the habit of making a sketch of each character you play before you begin work on it. Have you done so for Hamlet?
Michael Stuhlbarg: Strangely, this is one of the first times I have not. I think it's because his identity seems to change so much during the course of the play. There are so many possibilities. For this particular journey, I decided to adhere mostly to what is said about him in the text. I'm trying to start with that and see what happens as I work outward from it, as opposed to starting with an image and working inward. It just worked out that way. It's also interesting in that he is very vulnerable. It seems to me he comes alive in front of an audience, and when he's by himself he seems to berate himself very quickly. I'm trying to gauge the ups and downs of the role, and find out why he goes where he goes.

Playbill.com: This is obviously a role that all actors hope to play. Did you think it would ever come your way?
MS: I had always hoped it would. I thought I had wanted to play it as a young man. I had worked on it in pieces for auditions. But I didn't know if I'd ever get around to it. When Oskar [Eustis] offered it to me, it took me by surprise.

Playbill.com: He did offer it to you outright?
MS: Yes. A couple years ago at an opening night party he walked over and offered it to me. It was [at] one of the shows at Central Park two summers ago.



Playbill.com: He just broadsided you. I guess you didn't have to think about it very long.
MS: Not very long. I think he got the idea watching my performance in Measure for Pleasure down at the Public Theater around that time. There was something in the journey of that character — I think the idea spawned from that.

Playbill.com: So you've had plenty of time to think about the part.
MS: (Laughs) Yes. Off and on. Which I'm not sure is a positive thing or a negative thing. It's certainly been living within me for a while.

Playbill.com: Is there anything particular about Eustis' interpretation of the play that you find interesting?
MS: I think his intention is to let the play speak for itself. That was one of the things that attracted me most to the idea of doing this. The play is so full of ambiguities and seeming antitheses that it was an exciting prospect for me to let those antitheses speak for themselves. We're trying to keep it as simple as possible, to present it unadorned to a modern audience.

Playbill.com: Does that idea lend itself to the design as well? Is it very spare?
MS: Yes. Very much so.

Playbill.com: And will you be in the traditional black?
MS: Indeed.

Playbill.com: You're playing opposite another famous Hamlet from the Public Theater's past: Sam Waterston, who plays Polonius this time around.
MS: It's been a real pleasure to have him around, to hear his anecdotes about work on the play. He is rediscovering this play from a very different perspective and I think is enjoying himself thoroughly. He's been very generous in encouraging me.

Playbill.com: Do you know what your next project is?
MS: I don't. Go see Hair [in the Park].

Playbill.com: So you can listen to Hamlet's words in a different musical context.
MS: Exactly.