‘Fat Ham’ review – the comic adaptation of ‘Hamlet’ serves up revenge with a side of ribs

Count on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play a few days before the start of performances in New York to raise not only anticipation but also, let’s face it, expectations.

So it goes for Fatty hama wide and happy riff on Hamlet at the Public Theatre. Running for 90 uninterrupted minutes, it’s by turns hilarious, chaotic and oddly charming – like when a young man touches another and says, “You feel like too expensive cloth”. In the end, the piece isn’t that deep, but it bursts with so much heart that you walk away with a smile on your face.

Playwright James Ijames thumbs his nose at the famous words of wisdom – “Neither a borrower nor a lender” – from Shakespeare’s classic about a sulky prince who ends up with a massive body count. Ijames borrows a lot of time for the bones of his work, and he threads direct quotes (“Ah, there’s the catch,” among them) into the script.

The author also lends his own distinct point of view for his contemporary update. This slice of life leans heavily into comedy, not tragedy, as it reflects on the big things that matter: personal identity, sexuality, transparency, living out loud.

The setting for the play – seen last year in a filmed production at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater – is a barbecue in a modest Southern home. A standing wreath suggests a memorial, but cheerful balloons suggest something lighter. It’s both: there was a death followed by a “yes”.

Juicy (Marcel Spears), a queer black middle schooler who is often called out for being “sweet,” relies on how his widowed mother, Tedra (Nikki Crawford), married his uncle, the Reverend (Billy Eugene Jones), a week after her father, Pap (Jones, again), died. Pap, a butcher and obviously an eyesore, was ejected while incarcerated for murder. The details of what led to his homicide are exaggerated enough to disconnect you.

Pap’s ghost soon appears and orders Juicy to avenge her murder, which Rev arranged. Every guest at the party bears a passing resemblance to Shakespeare’s original characters (at least in name), but issues surrounding their sexuality have come to the fore.

Tedra’s friend Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas) arrives with her young adult children, Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), whose love for Juicy is complicated, and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), a Marine with conflicted feelings and secrets of his own. Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), Juicy’s best friend, is a trippy motor buff.

Karaoke is sung. Food is served. The games are played. The charade is the thing when Juicy tries to expose Rev’s betrayal. Suffice it to say, death enters the proceedings, but Ijames is more interested in exploring life in all its glories and uncertainties.

Director Saheem Ali helms the entertaining and lively production, which is a joint effort between The Public Theater and the National Black Theatre. The physical production provides a perfect showcase for the work.

Maruti Evans’ ensemble ingeniously transforms from ho-hum to show-palace, Dominique Fawn Hill’s (“Mama’s Boy” for Juicy) logo tees speak volumes, and Stacey Derosier’s beams of lighting shade and dazzle if needed. Skylar Fox’s fun illusions and Lisa Kopitsky’s staging of the knockout fight deserve a mention.

Ali has assembled an excellent cast that doesn’t mind getting hammered. This is quite appropriate for a room in which revenge is a dish best served with ribs.

Fatty ham is at the Public Theater until July 3. Fatty ham tickets on New York Theater Guide.

Photo credit: The cast of Fat Ham at the Public Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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