Theater Review: “Fat Ham” — Hamlet at the BBQ
By Bill Marx
In Fat Ham, Black pain and repressed desire are transformed into a celebration of liberation and empowerment — once the villain du jour, the violent, tyrannical patriarchy, has been dispatched.
Fat Ham by James Ijames. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company in association with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective at the Calderwood/BCA, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, through October 29.
A cornerstone of Western literature is sure to invite spoofs, and over the centuries Hamlet has received plenty of memorable comic drubbings. One of the funniest I had ever seen on stage, up until The Huntington’s hilariously rambunctious Fat Ham, was The Skinhead Hamlet at the Loeb Drama Center in 1987. Clocking in at about 15 minutes, this brutal minimization followed the plot pretty well, but it reduced the Bard’s poetry to what would come out of the mouths of British punks who spent most of their time watching TV and swilling beer. Dean Morris’s Hamlet expired after spitting out “I’m fucked. The rest is fucking silence.” I vaguely remember an inebriated Ophelia drowning headfirst in a fish tank. Playwright Richard Curtis’s satiric approach was to reduce woe to the max: the humor was generated by the dizzying diminution of IQ — the majestic dumbed down to the obscene.
Dramatist James Ijames brings a more ambitious, freewheeling approach in his Pulitzer prize-winning farce. Shakespeare’s classic has been updated, relocated to a barbecue tossed by a Black family living in a suburb of “Virginia, or Maryland, or Tennessee.” The tragedy’s language is transmogrified (“Ay, that’s the rub”), the plot and its characters rejiggered; Hamlet’s soliloquies are burlesqued, and some of the text’s most famous lines are genially dissed. There is literary demolition here, but it is done in an affectionately deconstructive spirit. Death and destruction were omnipresent in The Skinhead Hamlet. Fat Ham turns Elizabethan catastrophe into a giddily rough-hewn “woke” romance. Black pain and repressed desire are transformed into a celebration of liberation and empowerment — once the villain du jour, the violent, tyrannical patriarchy, has been dispatched. As in Shakespeare, there is sex and death, but at this shindig Ijames is much more interested in serving up platefuls of pleasure than mortal punishment. Fat Ham is less about being “fucked” dead than about being able to love — without guilt — whomever you wish.
We find our Hamlet, Juicy, having trouble dealing with his vivacious mother Tedra’s recent marriage to the bullying Rev. An equally nasty Pap, Rev’s bother, pops up in the backyard as a ghost and tells his son that Rev had arranged for Pap to be offed when he was behind bars. (Pap was in prison because he had killed an employee at his barbecue restaurant because of the guy’s horrific bad breath.) Pap demands that Juicy avenge his murder by slicing-and-dicing Rev with a favorite butcher knife. Ijames sets out the bare bones of the original’s plot, but he takes plenty of uproarious detours, sometimes into realms of the zanily salacious: Tio, the play’s version of Horatio, has an active engagement with porn and, as related in a polymorphously (unperverse?) dream, jacks off with the assistance of a Gingerbread Man. For me, Shakespeare gives Horatio short shrift; Ijames makes up for the lacuna by giving Hamlet’s sidekick his due.
I don’t want to go much further because Fat Ham‘s unpredictable zigs and zags are part of what make the romp so funny. The arrival of another acrimonious family to the bawdy get together compounds the political conflicts posed by the generational divide: aging conservatives (Christian and otherwise) are pitted against those fighting to assert their queer identities. My favorite segments would include the transformation of the play-within-a-play into a game of charades, the ironic inclusion of “poor Jorick,” and two karaoke numbers, with Marshall W. Mabry IV’s Hamlet cutting through the predictable comedy to generate pathos. (Shakespeare’s ghost must be looking on jealously — no doubt he would have loved to have karaoke at his theatrical disposal.)
The Huntington presentation, in association with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective, moves along at a bright and brisk pace. Director Stevie Walker-Webb generally steers clear of falling into sit-com timing, the rat-a-tat of exchanged one-liners. Though it would be good if the production’s speed were a little less breakneck on occasion. Sometimes the laughs crowd together to the point that they step on each other. Let the levity breathe. As for the cast members, they are uniformly strong, proffering lively caricatures, zesty and effusive, skillfully over-the-top. Standouts include Mabry IV’s quirkily pensive Juicy, Lau’rie Roach’s ebulliently ribald Tio, and Ebony Marshall-Oliver’s empathically buoyant Tedra.
It should be pointed out that Ijames does not include a version of Fortinbras, whose army picks up the pieces of the kingdom after Claudius and company fall. For Shakespeare, freeing a country (or a dysfunctional family) is more complicated than the slaughter of one piggy patriarch — there are so many others to follow. Still, for years I have fielded impatient complaints from students and theatergoers — why does everybody have to die at the end of Shakespeare’s tragedies? If Hamlet is to have a happy ending, its body count considerably reduced, this is one highly amusing way to go.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.