Review: FAT HAM at Circuit Playhouse

The production runs through October 8th.

By: Sep. 23, 2023
Review: FAT HAM at Circuit Playhouse

Let’s be honest. Shakespeare is not for everybody. The often stilted, iambic pentameter stylings of The National Poet of England are seen as either polarizing at best or coma-inducing at worst. Shakespearean stories are elevated for how they’re told more so than what they’re telling with a verse that can frequently get lost in translation. For those yet to acquire a taste for The Bard of Avon, a contemporary retelling of the tale is on the menu at Circuit Playhouse in James Ijames’ 2022 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, FAT HAM. Under the direction of Memphis’ most up-and-coming director Jared Johnson, this savory production is a slow cooker that catches fire midway through before culminating in a raging delectable feast.

Rather than depicting the trials of a Danish royal family in which Prince Hamlet discovers the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle to marry his mother, FAT HAM is about a southern African American family in which Hamlet is replaced by a gay son named Juicy whose uncle (Rev) kills his father to marry his mother (Tedra) and then celebrates with a backyard barbecue. All the action takes place at the family cookout celebrating Rev’s wedding to Tedra—just one week after the death of Juicy’s dad (Pap). It’s a “big ask” to squeeze Shakespeare’s longest play into a one-setting story with no intermission, but somehow Circuit Playhouse pulls it off by turning this existential dark tragedy into a joyful, side-splitting comedy.

Things might be a bit confusing at first as it seems to take a moment for the actors (and the audience) to fully understand the “tone” of the play—is this a Shakespearean tragedy or a farce? For instance, at the top of the show, the “Ghost” (Pap) timidly saunters onstage covered in a picnic tablecloth in a manner that is neither haunting nor funny. The reactions by (Juicy) and his cousin Tio (Horatio) to seeing his murdered father are devoid of any real fear or concern. In fact, the characters’ apathy to it all (seeing a ghost and attending a wedding celebration for your mother and uncle a week after your father’s murder) is offered with shoulder shrugs and aimless wondering. It’s confusing and disappointing. Until it isn’t. Over time, the pacing picks up, more actors enter the stage, the comedy starts to coalesce, and FAT HAM becomes an ambitious and amazingly raucous comedy.

Review: FAT HAM at Circuit Playhouse
Trey Oliver as Juicy

Trey Oliver as the conflicted and bullied Juicy (Hamlet) is inconsistent in his portrayal, but does find key moments to let his stronger emotions of anger and betrayal pour out. His indifference towards his familial situation is often a conflicted presentation leaving it unclear as to who really feels lost-the character or the actor.

Review: FAT HAM at Circuit Playhouse
Mary Andrus as Tedra

Mary Andrus (Tedra) has glimmers of greatness as Juicy’s mother, but also waits to establish a rhythm of comfort and confidence until joined by the rest of the ensemble onstage. Once they’re there, she’s in with full force.

Review: FAT HAM at Circuit Playhouse
Marcus Cox as Pap

Marcus Cox is almost unrecognizable as he pulls double duty portraying the murdered ghost, Pap and his own murderous brother, Rev. While he is quite convincing as the chauvinistic, homophobic new “stepdad” to Juicy, he’s even more delightful as the vengeful, angry ghost who implores his son to exact revenge for his murder. This ghost is crass, mean and deliciously evil. Never has cannibalism sounded so appetizing!

Review: FAT HAM at Circuit Playhouse
Marc Gill as Tio

Through the years, it’s been a delight watching Marc Gill continue to get better and better as a performer. He’s always been a strong, standout member of ensembles on Memphis stages, but he seems to finally be getting his due as an amazing actor. As cousin Tio, Gill shines like never before as an affable sidekick to Juicy and his tribulations. His second act soliloquy devoted to a drug-induced, sexual VR interaction with a gingerbread man is top notch and impressive!

Just as the show starts to hum midway through, the odes to the original HAMLET characters of Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes storm the stage as mother Rabby, daughter Opal and son Larry. This family joins the festivities and elevates the entire production to new heights.

Review: FAT HAM at Circuit Playhouse
Dorian Davis as Larry

Dorian Davis is quite convincing as Larry-a military man and childhood friend to Juicy striving to be all that he’s “supposed” to be while still fighting his own demons. His character’s transformation is astonishing.

Review: FAT HAM at Circuit Playhouse
Facia Lee as Opal

Facia Lee brings a dry wit and perfect timing to the role of Opal--daughter to Rabby and sister to Larry with a “take it or leave it” attitude when it comes to choosing her own path. Her revelation to her mother towards the end of the play is a highlight and brings the house down.

Review: FAT HAM at Circuit Playhouse
Jessica "Jai" Johnson as Rabby

Ultimately though it’s Jessica “Jai” Johnson as Rabby who steals the show as the devout Christian holy woman who sees and believes only what she wants to see and believe. She perfectly personifies a woman of faith who espouses scripture over evidence with a panache fit for a queen. Johnson’s comedic timing is superb, and you can’t take your eyes off her.

Scenically, this is one of Playhouse on the Square’s strongest productions in recent memory. Phillip Hughen has managed to create a sprawling backyard setting with an expanding latticework porch, barbeque pit, and dining area. The façade of the back of the house allows for the windows to offer glimpses into the kitchen and lighting to spill over onto the inhabitants and it surely feels like home.

FAT HAM turns its source material on its head. You don’t have to be a fan of Shakespeare or even know anything about HAMLET to enjoy this Playhouse production. You’ll identify with the struggles within of betrayal, love, anger, and revenge and then laugh at yourself for identifying. Although most Shakespearean tragedies end with a slew of dead bodies, this production ends on a positive note—still killing, but only in the best of ways.


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From This Author - Kevin Shaw

Kevin grew up performing in the Birmingham, AL community theatre circuit since 1974. After moving to Los Angeles and appearing in a number of theatrical, TV and Film projects, he transitioned to direc... Kevin Shaw">(read more about this author)


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