“Fat Ham” at the Geffen – reviewed

According to the great sages of the internet, Hamlet is the most produced play in world history, and whether or not that claim is true, the indecisive Dane is certainly ubiquitous. And if it isn’t an actual production of the play, there are innumerable films that borrow the plot to serve their own purposes, from The Lion King to Strange Brew. Into this arena strides James Ijames’ Fat Ham, which loosely adapts Shakespeare’s work and changes the setting to a modern-day African American barbecue. The current production at the Geffen Playhouse features most of the original Broadway cast and is very entertaining. I enjoyed it and recommend the experience, but as to the play being judged on its own merits, I was a bit disappointed.

Juicy (Marcel Spears) is having a bad day. His father, Pap (Billy Eugene Jones), was murdered in prison, and has returned as a ghost to inform Juicy that Pap’s brother, Rev (Jones), ordered the hit. Pap wants Juicy to kill Rev, whom, to make things more complicated, has also has just married Juicy’s mother, Tedra (Nikki Crawford). Juicy is aware of his predicament’s similarity to that of Hamlet, but he is still unsure what to do. The arrival of guests, including bossy Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), her angry daughter Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and her soldier son Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb), doesn’t help matters. Juicy needs to decide whether he will play his fated role or break away from his unwelcome destiny.

Production photos by Jeff Lorch.

Spears plays Juicy as a compelling mix of beaten-down survivor and passive/aggressive wit. His performance of Radiohead’s “Creep” is a soaring, impassioned highlight that works both as an electrifying accomplishment and an effective look at Juicy’s inner life as he momentarily escapes from his misery. Jones is so talented at differentiating his two characters that I didn’t realize it was the same actor until I looked at the program, which is impressive. Crawford brings great comedic energy to her portrayal of Tedra, a selfish if not completely unsympathetic mother, and her humorous harangues of the audience are fun. Mitchell is quite good as Opal, but doesn’t get quite enough to do in the show, and Thomas is hilarious as the opinionated Rabby. Chris Herbie Holland is amusing as the chatty Tio, and Webb is moving as the tentative Larry.

Sideeq Heard’s direction gets terrific performances from the ensemble, and Skylar Fox’s illusions are deftly accomplished. Ijames’s comedic moments are more effective than the dramatic ones, such as a new twist on the line, “Ay, there’s the rub,” here referring to a barbecue spice rub. As undeniably talented Ijames is, Fat Ham works neither as a successful rendition of Hamlet nor as an especially insightful comment on it, but instead seems content to play around in the sandbox Shakespeare made. The play’s conclusion, which requires the set to be squashed into a small space for most of the runtime, feels like an unearned happy ending, and a monologue about a VR game is an attenuated misfire.

There is so much to enjoy in Fat Ham that I wish it were more consistent in its quality.

Fat Ham is presented by and at Geffen Playhouse and plays through May 11, 2024.

Tickets are available here.

Production photos by Jeff Lorch.

Terry Morgan

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