THE BLOG
03/25/2013 08:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2013

First Nighter: Paul Giamatti's Superlative Prince in James Bundy's New Haven Hamlet

Since William Shakespeare's Hamlet is vitally concerned with the forms of respect sons owe fathers and since New Haven native and Yale College and Yale Drama School graduate Paul Giamatti is the son of Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti -- who held the office from 1978 to 1986 and died in 1989 shortly after becoming Commissioner of Baseball -- it's difficult not to wonder whether the accomplished actor's appearance in the classic tragedy isn't in some way an homage to a parent who died far too young.

Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe speculations are not only futile but insulting. In any case, the younger Giamatti's performance is the kind of brilliant characterization that would make any proud dad stand up and cheer -- as audiences are doing at the Yale Repertory in James Bundy's immaculate, even inspired revival of the eternally challenging tragedy.

Not that Giamatti doesn't have one sizable hurdle to leap in the proceedings that Bundy and costume designer Jayoung Yoon have pointedly set in, more or less, 2013 -- and yes, Bernardo, Francisco and Marcellus as well as Fortinbras and their respective companions wear camouflage uniforms with black berets in what is a familiar conceit by now.

The pressure on Giamatti -- aside from performing and interpreting the troubled prince -- is that when he first appears wearing a dark suit in the court where murderous usurper Claudius (Marc Kudisch) and recent bride Gertrude (Lisa Emery) are celebrating their ascendance, he looks like nothing more than a balding middle-aged businessman worriedly contemplating the Danish state's financial prospects in the current EU crisis.

But then Giamatti begins to speak the Bard's poetry, and instantly he's completely immersed in the overwhelming grief that propels Hamlet through the five incident-crammed acts. His immediate delivery of the "O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt..." soliloquy firmly establishes the hold he has on the role. Theatrically, this Hamlet falls to the ground on saying the words, as if he has indeed melted under the weight of his sorrow.

This sort of bravura notion -- that might have seemed excessive from someone else -- is only the first of the highly imaginative acting choices Giamatti introduces, with Bundy collaborating, of course. And when Hamlet, after having quailed in a very real encounter with his father's ghost, decides to "put an antic disposition on," Giamatti draws cleverly and at length on his recognized comic flair for those antics. Yet, all the while, he never loses touch with Hamlet's emotional tumult.

Because Giamatti is so committed to the role, his every utterance and gesture reflects a man in conflict with himself and the out-of-joint world over the proper way to avenge his father's assassination. Often on the verge of tears and more than once going beyond the verge, he makes it clearer than many predecessors have that the inability to carry out soon enough his father's cry for vengeance -- a charge frequently leveled at Hamlet -- is indisputably due to the depth and breadth of his grieving.

As good and deft and plangent and funny as Giamatti is, he's hardly performing in a vacuum. Bundy has surrounded him with a strong supporting cast, led most notably by the versatile Marc Kudisch, who takes on not only Hamlet's uncle-stepfather Claudius but the not-so-spectral elder Hamlet's ghost. (Witty, no?, to suggest -- through the casting -- the brothers' family resemblance.)

If there's anything amiss with the performance, it's that the broad-shouldered Kudisch in full monarch regalia can't pass as inferior to the dead Hamlet's "Hyperion" bearing. But pointing out his to-the-manner-born looks is, needless to say, caviling. In both roles -- as the ghostly father he actually hands Hamlet a knife -- Kudisch broadcasts guilt-stricken authority. From start to finish he's smokin'. Amusingly enough, when the ghost's repeatedly shows up in clanking military attire, a cloud of something resembling smoke literally issues from his helmet.

As Gertrude, Lisa Emery brings fear and trembling and courtly mannerisms to her role. Playing a soldier's wife, she registers the acquired behavior that implies. As Ophelia, tall and willowy Brooke Parks is poignantly baffled and then poignantly mad -- and she wears a smashing gown during the play-within-the-play scene when Hamlet lies salaciously in her lap while catching the conscience of the king.

Austin Durant as a down-to-earth Horatio, Tommy Schrider as a quick-to-anger Laertes, Gerry Bamman as a dimly beaming Polonius and Jarlath Conroy as a twinkling gravedigger are all on the mark. The deferential bowing-backward-out-of-royal-presence manner with which Erik Lochtefeld as Rosencrantz and Michael Manuel as Guildenstern leave the court is all it takes to make them unforgettable.

Since everything about the production is first-rate, thanks go out to all concerned, starting with Meredith B. Ries for her handsome set, Two-tiered (with five musicians in the stage-right loft space playing Sarah Pickett's ominous score), its lower level is a series of elegant arches. Several pieces delineating rooms are lowered and raised. On one of them in the earlier scenes hangs a portrait of the older Hamlet, but it's later slyly exchanged for a double portrait of Claudius and Gertrude. When all these components are removed, the design on a revealed up-stage flat looks like a prolonged and desolate gaze into infinity.

Lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge and sound designer Keri Klick also contribute commendably, as does veteran fight director Rick Sordelet, whose plotting of the fifth-act Hamlet-Laertes poisoned-foil palpable hits is scarily maneuvered.

A word to the wise: Since it's the extremely rare Yale Repertory Theatre production that travels to Manhattan, Shakespeare lovers hungry for a transcendent Hamlet and Hamlet had better get themselves to New Haven by April 13 or prepare to heap on themselves many a stinging "Fie!"