Paul Giamatti in the title role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Yes, you read that correctly. The talented film actor (with a number of stage credits to his name) is currently treading the boards as the Prince of Denmark at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. No — I’m absolutely certain — he’s not playing Claudius.
Giamatti, in a bold (perhaps foolish) move, is tackling one of the Bard’s most in-demand roles a bit later than he should have — in fact, the actor playing his mother’s new husband Claudius, Marc Kudisch, is only one year older than Giamatti — but the production and his performance are not without their merits.
Playing Hamlet as an overgrown malcontent, Giamatti tries his hardest (and occasionally succeeds) in overcoming the visual distraction of his age. When he’s on stage, and especially when he’s alone there, James Bundy’s otherwise uneven production comes blazingly, thrillingly alive. Giamatti speaks Shakespeare’s verse nicely and exudes royal confidence, even as he slouches about both in a sharp tuxedo and in a bathrobe (costumes are by Jayoung Yoon), but despite his fine contributions, it’s ultimately impossible for him to wholly redeem what is otherwise a rudderless three-plus hours of theatre.
Though the production is mostly well-spoken and clearly presented, the prevailing impression here is that director Bundy built his production around Giamatti without much thought as to the framework that might surround his performance — both aesthetically and conceptually. The seventies-style architectural wooden sets by Meredith B. Ries are visually appealing but limiting. Yoon’s aforementioned costumes are wonderful as designed for Mr. Giamatti, but, as if the budget were blown on his garments, the rest of the cast are left to muck about in Men’s Wearhouse clearance-rack suits (some of them double-breasted, unfortunately) and womenswear that’s either straight out of Nancy Pelosi’s closet of skirt-suits or reminiscent of hastily-chosen Fashion Bug prom dresses. Besides for their drabness, there’s a disconnect between Hamlet (and a few other protagonists’) modern-dress aesthetic and some of the chorus members’ outfits, with some of the palace servants looking strangely as if they’re about to accompany the royal family of Denmark on a nineteenth-century fox hunt while Hamlet’s dressed in Chuck Taylors or a maroon V-neck.
Similarly ill-conceived is the production’s music by Sarah Pickett, which oscillates between tacky keyboard effects and awkwardly jazz-inflected trumpet licks. As a brassy blare opens the production’s second half, I wondered momentarily if we weren’t actually at Herbie Hancock’s Hamlet. Alas, we weren’t. We were trapped in this production, which features a talented if somewhat miscast ensemble who can’t quite make up for the director and designers’ ill choices. Kudisch as King Claudius is commanding; typically a musical theatre performer, it’s nice to see him stretch his talents. Lisa Emery is also quite good as Queen Gertrude. In a brief but memorable appearance, Jarlath Conroy livens the play’s final segment with a hearty performance as the Gravedigger (in one of the production’s best, most moving scenes). The least of the bunch is Brooke Parks, whose Ophelia is about as ill-conceived and poorly executed as they come. Parks, who appears to be in her twenties, is oddly paired with Giamatti, and she never quite turns the character’s inherent histrionics into something deeper or more meaningful than surface madness. It’s admittedly one of the play’s most difficult roles to capture, but it’s also one of the most essential to a good production of Hamlet. It seems as if almost no thought has been given to the actors’ ages here, yet, even more vexingly, there’s no directorial concept to explain (or even to capitalize on) this.
Though Giamatti is worth seeing (the production’s sold out, so ticketbuyers clearly had a premonition), and the production that surrounds him has its highlights, one can’t help but wonder why Hamlet. There are so many other great Shakespearean parts Giamatti seems suited for. Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing comes to mind; even Macbeth seems more age-appropriate and, in some ways, more suited to his talents. Alas, this flawed Hamlet will have to do for now, but producers would do well to find a more suitable vehicle in which this as-yet-underappreciated stage actor could really strut his Shakespearean stuff unabated.