By David A. Rosenberg
Toward the beginning of “Hamlet,” the eponymous prince, having spoken with the ghost of his deceased father, makes his companions swear not to reveal his secret: “How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself / As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on.”
The “antic disposition” that is meant to disguise his hesitant path to revenge soon becomes the controlling factor in Yale Rep’s production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, although “tragedy” is not the correct term to apply to this madcap version of one of western civilization’s greatest works of art. Perhaps because it stars the award-winning Paul Giamatti in the title role, an actor who can easily switch from sad to comic, the modern-dress production threatens to turn into a laugh fest.
So we have Hamlet, dressed in shlumpy underwear and robe for both the “To be or not to be” and nunnery scenes. Or here he is, dragging the body of Polonius, whom he has mistakenly killed, out of his mother’s room not with regret but a quip.
He’s not the only nod to farce: Polonius has to climb over bed and pillows to hide behind the arras. Gertrude, upset over witnessing Ophelia’s drowning, enters swilling from a bottle of Scotch (or is it Bourbon?) like a drunken landlady. In the climactic sword fight, still–playful Hamlet nicks Laertes not on the arm but in the crotch.
Amidst the shenanigans, we get glimpses of Giamatti as a soulful, intelligent, regretful Hamlet who bemoans the state of the world. (“This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.”) What we don’t get is someone who can’t or doesn’t distinguish between when Hamlet is playacting and when he’s for real, thus negating the play’s ambiguities. This is not a Hamlet we can fret over. His death has little nobility or pathos, although the actor is articulate and expressive.
That excellent actress Lisa Emery, here doing an imitation of Pat Nixon and/or Callista Gingrich, is bland and remote, while Brooke Parks’ Ophelia fades into the scenery in her early scenes, carrying the character’s obsequiousness to a dead end. Better are Marc Kudisch’s conflicted Claudius, Gerry Bamman’s dignified Polonius, Tommy Schrider’s forceful Laertes, Jarlath Conroy’s amusing Gravedigger and Austin Durant’s empathetic Horatio.
As the Player King, Paul Pryce is sonorous, but so unmistakable a physical figure that having him double as the ambitious warrior Fortinbras is just confusing. Speaking of doubling, Kudisch also plays the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, exuding sulfurous smoke from his clothes as if emerging from Hades.
As directed with vigor and clarity by James Bundy, the evening has other inventive touches: changing the official portrait from one king to another; the Ghost’s handing Hamlet a knife with which to kill Claudius (okay, it doesn’t make sense); the awkward court manners of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
But the physical production is rank and gross. Sarah Picket’s music is intrusive; Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting is harsh; Meredith B. Ries’ scenery is meager and anachronistic, while Jayoung Yoon’s costumes are a mish-mash.
Every generation has its own “Hamlet,” a work that grows and changes as viewers do. This Yale production is geared for a post-modern, ironic era where nothing is taken seriously, few speak trippingly on the tongue and passion is something that flares up on Saturday evening to be forgotten Sunday morning.