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‘Fat Ham’ at Geffen Playhouse flips Shakespeare’s script

From left: Marcel Spears (Juicy) and Nikki Crawford (Tedra) in Geffen Playhouse's "Fat Ham" (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

If you Vitamixed the existential pages of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” with a crockpot of Southern barbecue sauce, you might end up with a play as spitfire as James Ijames’s 2017 “Fat Ham” — now extended through May 5 at Geffen Playhouse.


How the Tony Award-nominated play maps onto “Hamlet” and spins it on its head is remarkable, but what you’ll relish most in this production of “Fat Ham” is the sizzling energy of its original Broadway cast and its creative staging.

From left: Marcel Spears (Juicy) and Billy Eugene Jones (Pap) in Geffen Playhouse's "Fat Ham" (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

Juicy (a warmly authentic Marcel Spears) is the melancholic Southern son of a father (an excellent Billy Eugene Jones) who died after being shanked in prison and returns as a white-suited ghost, popping up in the most unexpected ways thanks to illusions designer Skylar Fox.


The ghost visits Juicy and his sex-obsessed best friend Tio (Chris Herbie Holland, channeling Fresh Prince) as they help set up a backyard barbecue (scenic design by Maruti Evans) celebrating the nuptials of Juicy’s spirited and sexy mother Tedra (an astonishing Nikki Crawford) to the father’s own brother (also Jones), a reverend.  

Ensemble cast of Geffen Playhouse's "Fat Ham" (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

So far, so “Hamlet.” Except Juicy wears braided hair and a black shirt with “Mama’s boy” written in pink glitter that his mother made for him. Bullied by his father and uncle for being “soft,” Juicy proclaims himself an “empath” at one point, and sings Radiohead’s angsty “Creep” during family karaoke, richly belting “I don’t belong here” in a moving crescendo.


Rather than being potentially cringeworthy, the scene is beautifully rendered, with Juicy’s family (at least in his mind) swaying along to the song, which is at first amusing, but they soon meld through sound (designed by Mikaal Sulaiman) and lighting (by Bradley King) to create a moment of unity amid an otherwise fraught and shrill family dynamics.

Ensemble cast of Geffen Playhouse's "Fat Ham" (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

For more deeply than teen angst, Juicy grapples not only with the ghost of his father, but a Black family legacy going “all the way back to slavery” that sees the men as violent and prison-bound, and the women — even one as feisty as Tedra – having little choice but to go from a father’s house to a husband’s and then, apparently, to another husband’s almost immediately if the first dies.


Soon joining the family for the backyard cookout (note: don’t attend hungry) are tomboy Opal (a bright Adrianna Mitchell) in a rare dress, uniformed Marine Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb) and their imposing mother Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), in her literally "color purple" Sunday best (character-driven ’90s-ish costuming by Dominique Fawn Hill).

From left: Marcel Spears (Juicy) and Adrianna Mitchell (Opal) in Geffen Playhouse's "Fat Ham" (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

As the younger generation (none of whom are traditionally “straight”) face off against their elders in a game of charades — the play within the play designed to “catch the conscience of the king,” as in “Hamlet” — we feel their vulnerability, saddled with the archaic rules and selfish decisions of their parents while navigating a nebulous freedom promised by an evolving digital landscape.


Like these youths’ loosely defined identities, the play itself has amorphous structural edges, unfolding in waves rather than couplet-ending acts. However, a very thin fourth wall and the characters’ occasional awareness that they are in front of an audience — and possibly even enacting a version of “Hamlet” — is refreshingly interesting.  

Chris Herbie Holland (Tio) in Geffen Playhouse's "Fat Ham" (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

Parallels to Shakespeare’s play are also fun to notice. Though Juicy only sometimes soliloquizes Hamlet’s lines, oblique references abound, such as Opal saying she wants to be flushed down a toilet. A balloon with a happy face that could have evoked Yorick’s skull in “Hamlet,” but is instead sat on, seems like a missed opportunity.


The play also insightfully answers why Juicy (or Hamlet, for that matter) doesn’t just run away from his situation, and it ingeniously culminates in the characters' empowering turn of fate. The ensuing dance party of self-acceptance and expression seems more like virtual fantasy, though, closely following as it does an act of violence perhaps more grounded in these characters’ actual lived experience.

Nikki Crawford (Tedra) in Geffen Playhouse's "Fat Ham" (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

Through it all, the entire energetic ensemble is a joy to watch, with astute comic timing as directed by Sideeq Heard, based on original direction by Saheem Ali. Crawford as Juicy’s mother especially stands out for her sustained dynamism and emotional believability. Her performance and the creative staging of “Fat Ham” make the answer of “To go or not to go?” decidedly “Go.”


“Fat Ham” continues at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, extended through May 11, with shows Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets range from $39 to $139 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (310) 208-2028 or visiting Run time is 100 minutes without intermission.




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