Who knew there were laughs in “Hamlet?” I’m talking about big laughs, laughs a performer could legitimately go after and get. Who knew you could walk out of a performance saying, “Well, Claudius got the biggest laugh of the night….?”
That is what happens at the much heralded (and sold out) Paul Giamatti-driven “Hamlet” at the Yale Rep. The audience laughs all the way through the first act. And then Claudius — that snake! — gets an even bigger laugh in the second.
I know. This sounds all wrong. But it isn’t. At least, it ain’t necessarily so wrong. This Yale Rep production hasn’t fully pulled off what it’s trying to do — which is explore “Hamlet” for its bitter humor, its infinitely dark jest — but it has come very close, and it can probably get there with a little tweaking. Even as things stand (or, ultimately, fall over dead), one walks into the night thinking one has had a legitimately consciousness-shifting experience. And that’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp dueling sword. One of David Letterman’s flashes of genius was a recurring bit called “Is this anything?” Even though it was mainly applied to people doing handstands next to Pilates balls, this is a primal, almost Aristotelian question about what is done on stage. This “Hamlet” is definitely something.
One of the tropes on which I have been relying here in my own 50s goes like this: “There are people who think they’re living in a comedy and people who think they’re living in a drama.” If you are the former sort of person, you will often find it hard to make common cause with the second sort.
Giamatti and director James Bundy have dared to ask whether Hamlet could possibly be the sort of person who, in his anguish, in his madness, could not completely ignore the hilarity of his circumstances. Dead Polonius in Mom’s bedroom? Come on! This is funny stuff, people. Farce is just tragedy with an attitude. After all, there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. It’s not intrinsically funny to be so desperately hungry that one eats, with gusto, one’s own boot. You think “The Gold Rush” would play in Pyongyang? But we know it can be very funny.
The problem is that, at some point in the second act, you have to pivot, right? As our parents used to tell us, “It’s all fun and games until somebody puts an eye out.” You have to find a moment, an apercu, when, as the young people say these days, “Whoa. Shit is real.” The Rep production has not quite mapped that Rubicon, and the way you know that is that in what would technically be Act V, Giamatti doesn’t really have anywhere to go. He has been a wonderfully fey, capering, japering Dane — even barking into Claudius’s ear a “Ruff!” right out of the Curly Howard playbook — for four acts. His technique and intensity are fabulous, but they’re all directed at this one idiosyncratic interpretation. But this is Elsinore, dammit, not Ricky’s Club Tropicana. By the time the foils come out, there needs to be an unmistakeable shift in tone, and I don’t think they quite manage it. In fact, what happens is that Giamatti goes, in short order, from four acts of daring, inspired and indelible Hamlet to one act of close-to-boilerplate Hamlet.
But this is a solvable problem, and meanwhile, the creative team has made all sorts of other really cool choices. The visual signature is a neo-Brutalist modern, with machine guns, camo and business casual. It’s as if Francoists took over Pottery Barn.
Everybody cuts “Hamlet.” Otherwise it runs four-hours-plus. But what to cut? One thing this production cuts is the indecision. I know! “Hamlet” without the indecision is like “The Quiet Man” without the fistfight. The famous speeches are still there, but in a more holistic way, this Hamlet knows exactly what he wants to do. He’s decisive, in a fairly deranged way. He doesn’t let much slow him down.
The other major cut seems to be Hamlet-Ophelia. Some better Shakespeare scholar than I needs to chew on that one, but this show seems uninterested in that one dynamic. When Ophelia goes off her meds, it’s all about Polonius. I’m not saying every theater company should do “Hamlet” this way, but the streamlining works very well at the Rep.
Giamatti is one hell of an actor. He’s even more physically implausible as the prince than you think he’s going to be. He doesn’t even try not to be a schlub. He slouches and hunches like Wallace Shawn in “The Princess Bride.” My father back from the dead? Inconceivable! But it works because this Hamlet is not some brooding chick magnet. He’s everynerd. He’s the man in the gray flannel doublet. He’s a nebbish who has been pushed to his limit. Really? You killed my father, and you’re nailing my mother, and I’m supposed to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with any of this?
The rest of the cast is pitch perfect. Marc Kudisch, mainly an actor in musicals, was an inspired choice to play Claudius as a smooth, fratricidal J. Peterman. Rarely has Claudius been allowed to court the approval of the audience to quite this extent.
The casting in this is so deep that you wonder if they have bigger plans. This would be a fun show to take to New York. They need to go into that second act with a big wrench and tune it differently, but that could be done. This is madness, but there is method in it.