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Hamlet with Paul Giamatti
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: Hamlet at Yale Rep

Film star Paul Giamatti plays the melancholy Dane as a prince in midlife crisis.

Yale Repertory Theatre (New Haven, CT). By William Shakespeare. Dir. James Bundy. With Paul Giamatti. 3hrs 30mins. One intermission.

Ever since you heard that Paul Giamatti was playing Hamlet at Yale Rep, you’ve been moodily muttering to yourself: “To go or not to go?” Whether ’tis nobler (or a sensible use of time and money) to get on Metro-North for two hours and see a three-and-a-half-hour production of the great tragedy, or stay home and try to get into The Flick or Belleville. (Or plow through the uncut Branagh DVD that’s gathering dust on the shelf.) That’s assuming you can score tickets to Yale Rep’s Hamlet—which is sold out. You could take your chances: go up and get on a waiting list. But is the effort worth it, when there’s so much here in New York to enjoy?

First off, the good news (or bad news, if you have to miss it): Giamatti crafts a fascinating Hamlet, rich in pathos, anguished, cunning, with deep wells of sorrow and spiky eruptions of clownish glee. That the film star is 45 years old, balding, with a slight paunch and that patented hangdog world-weariness makes his Hamlet superficially unusual but spiritually simpatico. Giamatti has always acted as the intersection of shame and wounded arrogance, both eliciting our sympathy but also stoking our repulsion by his ability to appear petty and self-defeating. He connects to Hamlet’s puritanical disdain and his self-loathing. Giamatti’s renditions of the great soliloquies are urgent and glassine, as he feels his way with grim determination through the prince’s musings on lust, revenge, death and ultimately, fate. Physically, Giamatti is nimble and quite impressive in the Act V fencing match, but he can also schlump around in an old-man bathrobe to comic effect.

If only the rest of the production were as versatile or deeply felt as its leading man. James Bundy’s staging is your garden-variety modern-dress affair, with characters wielding daggers, swords and automatic rifles. Beyond the updated outfits and jokey touches (at one point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sip from coffee mugs decorated with the flag of Denmark), there’s no discernible concept. Meredith B. Ries’s set is a kind of exposed-beam Elizabethan playhouse, with backdrops flown in to create rooms or locales. Bundy’s directorial touches are minor but sometimes irritating: He has Gertrude (Lisa Emery) deliver “there is a willow grows aslant a brook” in a drunken slur as she finishes off a bottle of Scotch; Ophelia (ineffectual Brooke Parks) does her mad scene clad in dead Polonius’s bloody shirt and little else; and when Fortinbras (Paul Pryce) comes in at the end in khakis and speaks in a heavy accent, you wonder if Denmark shares a border with Namibia.

There are decent actors in the ensemble (Gerry Bamman’s Polonius is dryly amusing), but the performances are uneven and the overall timidity of the production leaves you waiting for Hamlet’s next entrance to liven up the proceedings. Still, despite its lengthy running time, the staging is relatively efficient and clear. I don’t believe Bundy or Giamatti intentionally surrounded Hamlet with weaker performers to set off the lead, but that is the effect. You leave wishing they’d airlift Giamatti out of this Hamlet and drop him into a better production—preferably in Manhattan.

Hamlet is at Yale Rep through Apr 13. Click here for more information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote.

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