Review: FAT HAM at Geffen Playhouse

A smart and juicy Shakespearean ode comes to the Geffen

By: Apr. 12, 2024
Review: FAT HAM at Geffen Playhouse
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Huzzah for the Ham!

James Ijames’ FAT HAM, that is. Bless its softness, its savory juiciness, its wit and its ostentation. And its Juicy!  Hooray for the clothes (the “funereal” black and the colorful), the music, the unabashed delight that this whacked-out literary homage enjoys in wrestling with Shakespeare’s existential conundrums and deciding, screw it! let’s get down to the food! Hooray certainly to The Geffen Playhouse for reuniting nearly the entire Broadway design team and cast  and bringing then all to L.A. for the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s west coast premiere under the direction of Sideeq Heard.

FAT HAM is a modern, reimagining of Shakespeare’s HAMLET set on the porch of a Black family’s cookout in North Carolina. Ijames has eliminated several characters, streamlined the plot to run 100 minutes and filtered the proceedings through the gaze of a queer hero whose agenda is to figure stuff out and bump off his uncle. That man would be Juicy (played by Marcel Spears, also the production’s associate producer) who knows he’s living Hamlet’s dilemma in the present, but quietly works through things while letting some of his equally conflicted family and friends the opportunity to sort through their craziness.  A case could even be made that Juicy – for all his Bard-fueled meta self-awareness – isn’t the hero of HAM after all. Or perhaps he is. Who cares! Fire up “Kill the Lights” and let’s party on!

But first, to the play. Our scene is a backyard barbecue celebrating the marriage of Tedra (played by Nikki Crawford), who hooked up with Rev (Billy Eugene Jones) a hasty few weeks after the death of her husband Pap who was shanked in prison. Juicy, a slightly aimless twentysomething studying human resources at the University of Phoenix isn’t thrilled about any of this, and Rev treats him like crap, but Juicy is not one to make waves. His cousin, Tio, (Chris Herbie Holland) helps Juicy set up for the party, when he’s not taking a break to watch porn on his phone, getting high or contemplating a career on OnlyFans (“I could do that. I’m limber!”).

About that yard. It’s impressive.  As designed by Maruti Evans, this ersatz Elsinore is green and suburban with a big old smoker substantial enough to probably feed 50 (or occasionally to house a ghost). Juicy and Tio diligently gussy up the yard with balloons and streamers until a wraith covered in a tablecloth crashes the action.

The ghost is, yep, Juicy’s father Pap (Jones again) who, despite his fancy white suit and accompanying special effects, isn’t entirely the beloved and much mourned King of anything. In fact, he’s an abusive SOB who razzes Juicy for his choices and then instructs Juicy to avenge his death by killing Rev who ordered the hit. Alas, poor ghost? Forget that action! Listening to Juicy and Pap bicker over the former “going to school on a laptop” and the latter threatening to “end” his son if he eats a candy bar is to experience the rich comic prowess of Ijames’s writing.

Next to arrive, are family friend Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), her daughter Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and son Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb), both of whom love Juicy in significantly different ways. Larry’s a Marine with a secret. Opal despises dresses and wants to run a shooting range.  

With the scene set, and Juicy armed with his ghostly commission, a version of the events of HAMLET unfold. Juicy doesn’t exactly get five minute soliloquies to talk about being undecided, but he often takes the mic to address the audience, sweeping us into the action. Tedra is particularly anxious that Juicy tell this tale correctly to “them folks.” We also get karaoke, charades, music and, why not! Some actual HAMLET text.

Salute again to Heard’s entire company who – after working for more than a year together during the pre-Broadway and Broadway runs – pick right up where they left off with plenty of rich, catty chemistry. Crawford treads the line between trashy and fabulous. In his two roles, Jones is as magnetic as his character is despicable. Webb infuses the combustible Larry with a mix of longing, tenderness and bitterness. As tough as it must be to be Juicy in this family, Larry may actually have it worse.

In addition to its keeping pace with the Bard, FAT HAM contains an undercurrent of messaging about the ill effects of toxic masculinity.  Riffing on cycles of violence in a speech that echoes the words of Claudius, Tio reminds Juicy “Your pop went to jail, his Pop went to jail, his Pop went to jail and what’s before that? Slavery.”

Our aptly named-hero may in fact be soft and indecisive, but he’s also observant and resourceful…just the man to set things right. Every inch into embodying the underdog, Spears’s Juicy is brainy and arch. But also soft and “thicc” (with two c’s). Because celebrating thickness is also what this play is all about.

FAT HAM began its life as a filmed play during the pandemic. Now it’s a Pulitzer Prize winner likely bound for every regional stage in land. With apologies to the late O.J. Simpson, L.A. audiences can delight in the fact that the Juice is loose.

FAT HAM plays through May 5 at The Geffen Playhouse.

Photo of Marcel Spears and Billy Eugene Jones by Jeff Lorch


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