Ordinary People! Poor Hamlet I knew him well!

by Rosalind Friedman

Paul Giamatti, Mark Kudisch and Gerry Bamman give intelligently quirky performances in ‘Hamlet’ at Yale. Sarah Pickett's musical score, using percussion, double bass, trumpet and harp, is exceptional, creating shock and awe. The Yale Rep is presenting an everyman version of Hamlet starring Yale graduate Paul Giamatti, who is greatly admired for his award-winning work in film. In an interesting article in the Yale playbill, Production Dramaturg Dana Tanner points out that during its 400 years, Shakespeare's most mysterious and most popular play that takes place in Denmark has had many interpretations depending upon the times.


In this case, the present production directed by Artistic Director James Bundy, underlines the essence of the story, plumbing the humor, particularly with Rosencrantz and Guldenstern and in the Players scene, while reflecting the inelegance of this era in which we live. And therein lies the rub. I have seen many productions of Hamlet; the last with Jude Law on Broadway. Here, the characters are in modern dress, and but for the exquisite evening gowns designed by Jayoung Yoon, everything is muted and homely. Action is taken on a wood-framed, minimalist set designed by Meredith B. Ries, which serves many purposes.


In his first scene, as young Prince Hamlet home from school in Germany, Giamatti, short, balding and innocuous, in a dark suit, stands off to the side at Castle Elsinore's royal court, watching as his newly-widowed mother passionately returns kisses from her brand-new husband, Claudius. Much to Hamlet's chagrin, mama Gertrude, pencil-thin blond Lisa Emery, has taken no time in marrying her brother- in-law, Hamlet's uncle, the multi-talented Marc Kudisch. This actor has starred in many musicals and is, this spring, a Beinecke Fellow at Yale School of Drama, as is Giamatti.


When Hamlet hears that his friends have spoken to the Ghost of his dear departed dad, the formidable King, he follows them to the parapets. There, with help from Stephen Strawbridge's dramatic lighting, the King (Kudisch) orders him to revenge his death -- a murder-by poison -- and not to forget him.  From that moment on, Hamlet takes on the mantle of madness, appearing publicly in shorts and a ratty bathrobe, looking like the lower East Side mobster, Vincent Gigante. The question always asked: is he acting or is he really crazy.


Giamatti's performance is at times physically animated. He curls up and leaps into the arms of a comrade like Jerry Lewis used to do to Dean Martin; he writhes on the floor suffering in grief; He treats Ophelia, dressed in a blood-splotched shirt, as if she were invisible. The scene in which he kills Polonius by mistake in Gertrude's bedroom is awkward and needs re-staging. Giving the famed soliloquy, “To be or Not to Be” in a side doorway lessens its importance. However, he speaks it well. It is a huge part and I am sure Giamatti will be exploring it all through the run.


Hamlet playing to sold-out audiences until April13 at the Yale Rep.

(This review originally aired on WMNR Fine Arts radio)

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