Over the centuries, “Hamlet” the play and Hamlet the character have proven almost infinitely malleable, open to countless interpretations.
I even once saw Paul Giamatti play Hamlet in a plaid bathrobe and blue boxer shorts at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fat Ham,” now at the Wimberly Theatre in a Huntington production in association with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective, playwright James Ijames turns “Hamlet” upside down and gives it a vigorous shake.
What tumbles out are the comic possibilities embedded within Shakespeare’s tragedy. Ijames finds, too, a contemporary resonance that reminds us “Hamlet” is not constrained by time, place, or circumstance.
What becomes clear during this freewheeling production of “Fat Ham,” directed with creative flair by Stevie Walker-Webb, is that Ijames has crafted a thing that is all its own, even though he borrows plot elements and characters from “Hamlet.”
Set in the present day at a Southern Black family’s backyard barbecue, “Fat Ham” revolves around a college student named Juicy (Marshall W. Mabry IV), the Hamlet equivalent. A gentle soul in a hard-edged and violent world, Juicy is trying to figure out a few things; among them, coming to terms with his sexuality. In Mabry’s sensitively calibrated performance, Juicy’s dilemma is less “To be or not to be?” than “What to be?”
A complication arises in the ghostly form of Juicy’s late father, Pap (James T. Alfred). Pap demands that his son avenge his murder, hurling verbal abuse, including a homophobic slur, at Juicy when the son seems reluctant.
Pap’s murder was orchestrated by his own brother, Rev (Alfred again), who arranged it so that Pap was shanked on his way to dinner in prison. (Pap was in prison for killing a man because he had bad breath.) It’s been less than a week since Pap’s slaying, but his wife and Juicy’s mother, Tedra (Ebony Marshall-Oliver, excellent) has already married the nefarious Rev.
Ijames is a democratic dramatist. That is to say, while Juicy is the central figure, Ijames distributes the dialogue and the action pretty evenly across the entire cast. Everyone onstage at the Wimberly gets a chance to shine and does so, with each actor bringing a specific energy to their characterizations.
They include Alfred, a formidable and menacing figure as both Pap and Rev; Victoria Omoregie as Opal, a friend of Juicy’s who is solicitous of him and is carrying a secret of her own; Amar Atkins as Larry, a Marine who is attracted to Juicy but is conflicted about his own sexuality; Rabby (Thomika Marie Bridwell), the holier-than-thou mother of Larry and Opal; and a scene-stealing Lau’rie Roach as Tio, a Horatio-like figure.
Adding to the anything-goes vibe, “Fat Ham" periodically breaks the fourth wall, with characters directly addressing the audience. At one point, adding an extra layer of meta, a suspicious Tedra interrogates Juicy on what he’s been saying to the audience.
Though “Fat Ham” is quite funny, Ijames is after more than just laughs. He has a knack for widening the lens through which we see his work.
For example, in his “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever,” presented online two years ago by SpeakEasy Stage Company in partnership with Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Ijames reimagined the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. As I wrote in my review, the playwright put that story “in a present-day context while holding up a cracked mirror that reflects a few larger truths about the legacy of racism.”
In “Fat Ham,“ Tio frames the big historical picture for Juicy at one point, explaining that “these cycles of violence are like deep. Engrained. Hell, engineered. Hard to come out of. Like, your Pop went to jail, his Pop went to jail, his Pop went to jail, his Pop went to jail, and what’s before that? Huh? Slavery.”
“You carrying around your whole family’s trauma, man,“ Tio adds. “And that’s OK. You OK. But you don’t got to let it define you.”
Will Juicy take his advice and clear that obstacle, along with the others in his path? Well, let’s just say the ending of “Fat Ham” is a lot more joyful and a lot less bloody than the denouement of “Hamlet.“
Play by James Ijames. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb. The Huntington, in association with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective. At the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Oct. 29. Tickets $30-$139. 617-266-0800, Huntingtontheatre.org