'Hamlet' Funny, But Uneven
By FRANK RIZZO
The show: "Hamlet" at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven
First impressions: There have been all sorts of Hamlets over the years but none I venture to say are quite so funny as the one by Paul Giamatti, who can draw big laughs with just a sly and sardonic look from his hound-dog face. Certainly there is humor to be tapped in the play -- and at 3 1/2 hours it's certainly welcome -- but the yucks at times are disconcerting and underscore the uneveness of this production, staged by artistic director James Bundy.
While some of the choices are confounding and many of his character's relationships are downright mystifying, Giamatti's troubled prince is always interesting to listen to and watch. But admiration for an actor is not the same as being transfixed, transported and moved.
At 45, isn't he a little old to be playing a university student? That didn't bother me in the least. Giamatti's age, countenance, and short and doughy physicality evokes an intellectual loner, one who has spent many, many a late night pondering and no doubt talking obsessively about the mysteries of the universe and his place in it.
Giamatti brilliantly captures that fierce intellect, in this neurotic and privileged man, as he takes us deeper and deeper into his ever-whirling mind. As he grapples with the murky and murderous state of affairs, both political and personal, it's fascinating to watch his internal struggle that excites, confounds, amuses and tortures him. As he comes to terms with his madness, duty and humanity, it's a quirky, sometimes off-putting exploration of a conflicted response to a father's call to revenge. But the performance also makes a kind of crazy sense given this odd figure of a student/clown prince.
What is less clear -- or convincing -- is his relationships with other characters. He has little closeness to Austin Durant's Horatio -- and who can blame him? This supposed best pal is a bore, but this loss of connection diminishes the play's final moments. And Brooke Parks' Ophelia? There is even less chemistry or clarity here and her second act descent into madness seems to be a show stopper in the worst sense of the word.
So it comes as somewhat of a surprise when Hamlet confronts his queen mother that Giamatti steps out of himself to connect fully with another in such a raw, vulnerable way. Lisa Emery shows a wondrous range of emotions in this terrific scene (indeed, in all her scenes) and for a brief moment our hearts go out to them all -- even Polonius, lying dead on the floor. Gerry Bamman expertly plays the role of the royal advisor with professional dispatch, avoiding the dithering often associated with the part.
Other actors also do well. Marc Kudisch, who showed his range in Hartford Stage's "Summer and Smoke," plays King Claudius with regal bravado, cunning and charm. And humor, too. He gets the show's biggest laugh, when he tries to deal with his troublesome nephew with a patronizing, "Now, Hamlet…"
Also solid are Jarlath Conroy as the Gravedigger, Erik Lochtefeld and Michael Manual as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Chris Bannow as Osric.
Productions values are impressive with Meredith B. Ries' stately set and Stephen Strawbridge's skillful lighting getting high marks. Jayoung Yoon's costumes smartly define the production's undefined -- but mostly contemporary -- time. Hamlet's red sneakers with his dinner jacket is a nice oddball touch and I loved Ophelia's playful party dress but oh, Horatio's preppy sweater? No.
Who will like it? Shakespeare fans, especially those hungry for a fuller version. Admirers of Giamatti.
Who won't? Shakespeare fans, especially those who prefer sharper editing.
For the kids? Some hip high-schoolers will appreciate aspects of the production -- and they will certainly enjoy the yucks and there's some impressive swordplay -- but the long running time will be a challenge for the kids. And some adults.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less? Paul Giamatti fascinates, frustrates in uneven 'Hamlet' production. To go or not to go? It's sold out anyway.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot? There are more ghosts surrounding this production than are on stage at the University Theatre. Giamatti's father, A. Bartlett Giamatti, was president of Yale from the late '70s to the mid '80s and played a significant role in the School of Drama and Rep's future. The actor attended the School of Drama in the '90s and tackled some impressive and wide ranging roles, setting the stage for his rich and varied career. To return to New Haven at this point in his impressive career to tackle one of theater's greatest and most challenging roles brings even deeper resonance to the occasion.
The basics: The show plays at University Theatre, 222 York St., in New Haven and the run, which ends April 13, is sold out. The show runs 3 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Information: 203-432-1234 and http://www.yalerep.org.