Ride the Tiger
Ends April 21, Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, (203) 787-4282, longwharf.org
Greed and power and wit and charm. Different combinations of those characteristics fuel various characters in shows at both the Yale Rep and Long Wharf theaters this month.
Paul Giamatti's Hamlet makes me realize that I've been longing all my life to see a Hamlet that was something other than young, thin, athletic and attractive. The prince of Denmark isn't just an iconic role, it's unfairly become an archetype and stereotype and leading-man-type. This is a 20th century phenomenon; you can be sure that the great Shakespearean actors of the 1800s who barnstormed through rural opera houses weren't wiry college kids. Edwin Booth, widely considered the greatest Hamlet of his time, gained major acclaim for doing the role in his 30s and continued to play it into his late 50s.
One reason every new Hamlet comes under such scrutiny is that there are so many speeches we're all so intimately familiar with, and the same sort of actor is always doing them. When someone of a different voice and physical type and approach comes along, it's like watching a whole new play ... Especially when there still is a handsome, moody rascal among the lead players; and this time it's Claudius. Marc Kudisch plays Hamlet's stepfather/uncle with the same cocksure he-man bluster that he brought to the title role in Tartuffe at Westport Country Playhouse last year (and, to stretch a point, that he brought to the title role in an early '90s national tour of Bye Bye Birdie). Kudisch's studly and smoldering Claudius is simply baffled by Giamatti's unmade-bed of a Hamlet. Their incompatibility is neatly underscored by how deeply Claudius seems to bond with the prince's potential assassin Laertes (a dishy Tommy Schrider). The regal yet down-to-earth Lisa Emery (fresh from a Midwestern stint as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night) is a genuinely conflicted, regretful Gertrude. Not as mixed-up, however, as Brooke Parks' Ophelia. Her role is carefully modulated to fit in with Giamatti's clever, unpredictable, smartass Hamlet. Parks' Ophelia is like a headstrong grad student smitten with her professor. The attraction is intellectual, not physical, and her eventual breakdown seems all the more credible for it.
Director James Bundy wisely lets the casting of the title role be the main concept for this Hamlet. Giamatti's interpretation may be groundbreaking, but the staging and design assuredly aren't. Not that Giamatti is at odds with his castmates and environs — they are ideally chosen to support him, not just in how they scan the Elizabethan prose but in how they complement him in vocal tones and size. There's a bit of what I've come to call "the Bundy balance" — bits of comic shtick tossed in to lighten the mood. These moments can be obvious and jarring but I've learned to appreciate Bundy's desire to break up the darkness from time to time. After all, this is a largely uncut rendition of Shakespeare's script. We hear numerous solid speeches that are usually excised only for reasons of running-length and tone. Here, they stand, and are welcome, with Bundy merely trying to make sure we are regularly amused between the probing soliloquies.
This is a well-spaced-out, well-orchestrated production. (There's a live band setting the musical mood from the parapets of Meredith B. Ries' multi-story castle of a set.) Having been a devoted fan of Paul Giamatti since his student days at the Yale School of Drama, where I saw him carry epic productions of Ibsen's Peer Gynt and Gozzi's Love of Three Oranges, I never had any doubts that he could pull off a worthy Hamlet. Clearly nobody onstage with him or behind the scenes had any reservations either. This is a clear and committed effort to let a skilled performer share his vision of a role.
Over at the Long Wharf, the misunderstood and petulant prince is John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the manipulative patriarch is John's dad Joe, the well-meaning-pal-caught-in-the-middle Horatio type is Frank Sinatra, and the Ophelia is party girl Judith Exner. Then there's a fifth player, mob boss Sam Giancana, who's wandered in from a production of Richard III.
Based on stories told by Sinatra himself to playwright William Mastrosimone, Ride the Tiger is an all-American tragedy about power and corruption, involving some of the most powerful people in the nation. Mastrosimone has latched onto Giancana (played with ingratiating intimidation by Jordan Lage of the Atlantic Theatre Company) as the most intriguing and amusing of this conniving quintet, and overwrites many of the menacingly amusing Mafioso's scenes (particularly the one where he seduces Exner). It feels like Giancana gets considerably more stage time than his rival, the president of the United States. In truth, he simply interacts with fewer people. Sam's relentless wooing and outwitting of Exner (Christina Bennett Lind, whose diverse résumé extends from Metamorphoses and Dutchman to TV soaps, trying real hard to avoid bimbo stereotypes, with little help from the script) while JFK (a strapping, charismatic Douglas Sills, so dashing in the musical versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway and The Addams Family on tour) must juggle visits from his apoplectic dad (John Cunningham, the old-money-WASP from Long Wharf's 2007 production of A.R. Gurney's The Cocktail Hour, now playing a former rum-running Catholic), Ol' Blue Eyes (Paul Anthony Stewart, whose Sinatra impression grows on you as his rather vulnerable place in the plot unfurls and he becomes less cocky).
At a couple of points, director Gordon Edelstein resorts to grand spectacle to get across the impact of this grudge-match between gangster and politician. It works, but I already want to see how this highly personalized, sensualized and internalized dialogue will work in smaller theaters with fewer resources. As playwright Mastrosimone has noted himself, Ride the Tiger has the heft and sweep of Greek tragedy. It should be able to succeed without all the American pop culture iconography.