Monday, April 22, 2024

Theatre: The Comedy of Hamlet

 Fat Ham by James Ijames, Directed by Timothy McCuen Piggee, Seattle Rep through 12 May.

In a bit of happenstance, this is ALSO a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, winning the year before English did. So I did a little research, to discover HOW one wins a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The award is a juried award, which means that five grey eminences (one academic and four critics) get to make the call based on the year's submitted output (usually New York City based). Their choice can be overruled by the larger Pulitzer Prize committee at Columbia. but usually there is agreement (but there have been some notable exceptions). Just so you know.

Fat Ham falls into that category of "Shakespeare Adjacent" plays - Hamlet set behind around a BBQ grill in a black family's suburban home. Juicy (Taj E.M. Burroughs) is our Hamlet. His dad (Reginald Andre Jackson) just died in prison and his mom (Dedra D. Woods) just married his uncle (also Reginald Andre Jackson). Dad's ghost shows up to declare that Uncle Rev is responsible for his death, and demands the son avenge the father.

Familiar stuff, right? Well, Juicy/Hamlet isn't sure about all this avenging stuff. In fact, Juicy is not sure about a lot of things - he's an outsider, a loner, a young gay man in hostile territory. His family loves him but thinks he's soft, effeminate, and too smart for his own good. So he's trying to navigate a dysfunctional family that includes his dead (and abusive) father and his angry (and abusive) step-dad.

And tonally the production is all over the map, skittering from August Wilson levels of subliminal violence to BET Sitcom, then dipping into Shakespeare's original work, then tapping on the fourth wall and finally breaking it entirely. Juicy has his strange interludes, and brings some of the rest of his fam in with him. They make their case to the audience. Its an interesting mix, and in the end, it works.

What also works is giving more for the supporting cast things to work with. The original Shakespeare was all about Hamlet, and how he manipulates the situation around the others. Fat Ham's family all has their own stories, their own histories. We actually get into Tedra/Gertrude's thought processes on marrying her husband's brother. Opal/Ophelia (Aishe Keita) is much more than a tangential love interest that dies in a pond. Tio/Horatio (Chip Sherman) is an overblown, too-loud sidekick, and pulls it off incredibly well, as does Semaj Miller, who is transformative as the jarhead Larry/Laertes. Even Felicia V. Loud, who is pitched as Rabby/Polonius in this to-do, graduates from a stock character on Sanford & Son to a real person.

And the stagecraft for the most of the play actually behaves itself, until it finally cuts the surly bounds of gravity and takes flight itself, moving from earthbound to, well, luminescent. 

So, Pulitzer prize-winner. Yeah, I can see it, not for how it hews to the original material, but how it veers away and eventually discards its predecessor. I'll be honest - I liked English better, but this one, over the course of the performance, really won me over. 

More later,