Paul Giamatti’s Hamlet: a new take on the melancholy Dane

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A wonderful aspect of a long lifetime of theatergoing is to see “Hamlet” as many times as possible, done in as many different ways as brave actors and directors can dream up.

Shakespeare’s play seems to accommodate almost any actor willing to test himself against it (women have also tackled the role successfully — I saw the controversial Public Theater production with Diane Venora in 1983).

The lesson I’ve learned at “Hamlet” after “Hamlet” is that there is no definitive take on the play — like any great piece of dramatic writing, it comes to life differently each time it’s done.

Yale Rep has a deserved big hit right now with Paul Giamatti playing the title role and it is thrilling to see the wonderful character actor make the part his own. In advance of the opening, there was some skepticism in theater chatrooms about the actor’s age and his down-to-earth American Everyman persona.

What Giamatti might be missing in terms of beauty and youth is more than made up for by the actor’s down-to-earth humor and passion. The character seems all too human in James Bundy’s smartly designed and well cast production — Hamlet’s confusion about the quick remarriage of his mother to his uncle has never seemed more real and the prince’s fumbling, ill-planned revenge plot feels tragically up to date.

“Hamlet” has so many of Shakespeare’s “greatest hits” — phrases that have been used as book and movie titles, lines of dialogue that are known to people who have never seen the play — that it is a challenge to make the speeches sound freshly minted. Through Bundy’s cinematic staging and Giamatti’s casual, immediate readings, however, even such chestnuts as “To be or not to be…” sound like they are being thought up on the spot.

Bundy has surrounded Giamatti with expert actors who are all on the same page. I was especially impressed by the Claudius of Marc Kudisch (below, with Lisa Emery), an actor who is best known for his work in Broadway musicals (he was Tony-nominated for “9 to 5” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), but who is simply a superb actor in any genre. Like Alfred Drake and Robert Preston before him, Kudisch has the voice and presence of a classical actor whether he is in a musical or a straight play (and his love of being on stage comes through in everything he does).

Claudius is often portrayed as a one-note seducer/villain, but Kudisch’s interpretation is shockingly sympathetic (especially in the moments just before Hamlet and finds his uncle in prayer and refrains from killing the man lest his soul go straight to Heaven rather than Hell). The three-dimensional presentation of Claudius makes Hamlet’s determination to kill him all the more emotionally complex.

The Yale Rep run of “Hamlet” through April 13 is sold out, but well worth a wait on the cancellations line.

Joe Meyers

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