Review: 'Fat Ham' at the Geffen Playhouse slathers barbecue sauce on 'Hamlet" for delicious comedy

“Fat Ham,” James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, invites theatergoers to a backyard cookout in the American South. On the menu is William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” smothered in barbecue sauce.

Take my word for it: You’re going to want seconds. A comedy with serious tragic business on its mind, “Fat Ham” is the most gripping theatrical offering at the Geffen Playhouse since Matthew López’s epic gay drama “The Inheritance” and the most boisterously outrageous since Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue.”

Ijames (pronounced I’ms) relocates the action from the rotten state of Denmark to a domestic setting where something doesn’t smell right. Juicy (a glorious Marcel Spears), a Black queer student at a for-profit online university, lives with his mother, Tedra (a sensational Nikki Crawford), whose new husband has just moved into their home. The house isn’t big enough for the three of them.

Like Hamlet, Juicy is mourning the recent death of his father, Pap (Billy Eugene Jones). They weren’t close. Pap, who was killed in jail, had a violent temper. But the bond between a father and a son can’t be dismissed. When Pap’s ghost crashes the barbecue to demand that Juicy avenge his murder, Juicy doesn’t need a PhD in Renaissance drama to know he has a dilemma on his hands.

The murderer, of course, is Pap’s brother, Rev (Jones doing double duty), who has just made his sister-in-law, Tedra, his bride. More than kin and less than kind, Rev immediately starts menacing Juicy with needling comments and unveiled threats.

Rev calls Juicy “soft” and, under the guise of toughening him up, knocks him down with a punch. But Juicy is the strongest character in the play. An ironic observer with an unbending will, he prefers the quiet freedom of his own thoughts to the aggressive clamor of those around him who mistakenly believe they can control how he thinks.

Structured like an improvisational jazz riff on Shakespeare, “Fat Ham” makes existential music out of riotous domestic bickering. Familiarity is said to breed contempt. Here, claustrophobic proximity spawns sardonic hilarity.

Juicy is habituated to the madness of his mother. Brazen and unruly, Tedra is a sensual handful, grinding to the music one minute, teaching her son the tricks of how to hold onto a man the next. When craziness erupts, Tedra’s first instinct is to crank up the volume.

The play begins with Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), Juicy’s cousin, watching porn on his phone and showing off his own acrobatic moves. Juicy averts his eyes, but the two young men are tight, not unlike Hamlet and Horatio — if Only Fans were around when Shakespeare was writing.

Having dealt with one tyrannical, homophobic father, Juicy isn’t prepared to accept another. But is he capable of murdering his uncle? The question haunts Juicy as he tries to turn his pout into a smile for the guests and not be the killjoy his stepfather accuses him of being.

The party gets underway when another family, as loudly dysfunctional as Juicy’s, arrives with covered dishes. Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), dressed in her churchgoing best, is accompanied by her two grown children: Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), squirming in a girly dress that her mother made her wear, and Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb), home from the war in his military uniform.

Juicy’s interactions with Opal, his old pal who similarly refuses to conform to gender expectations, and straight-backed Larry, who has a secret tenderness for Juicy, are revealing. Ijames isn’t just riffing on “Hamlet” — he’s queering the play.

Opal and Larry, the Ophelia and Laertes of “Fat Ham,” bring to the fore questions of gender expression and sexual autonomy and acceptance that feed directly into the comedy’s most profound philosophical concern: How much freedom do we have to determine our fate in a world in which cycles of violence and centuries of systemic oppression foreclose paths and limit options?

Meanwhile, ribs are devoured, beer is guzzled and, when conflict ratchets up, shots are thrown back. A karaoke machine is brought out to liven things up. Tedra more or less pole-dances to a Crystal Waters dance mix; Juicy sings broodingly to Radiohead. A game of charades, which serves as a substitute for the play-within-a-play, exposes Rev’s guilt as effectively as “The Mousetrap” catches the conscience of the king in “Hamlet.”

But don’t mistake the raucousness for shallowness. Tio might come off like a joker, but he flashes sociological insights that connect the play’s various thematic strands. “That was way deeper than I was expecting,” Juicy says, after Tio lays down some truths about the inherited trauma of generational incarceration.

Sideeq Heard’s direction follows the plan of Saheem Ali’s 2022 production at the New York Public Theater that transferred to Broadway the following year. (The play received its world premiere in 2021 as a filmed production at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.) The ensemble for this West Coast premiere includes all but one of the original New York cast members. The performances are vibrantly drawn, though the staging was less precise at Thursday’s opening night performance.

Maruti Evans’ backyard set seems a bit cramped on the Geffen Playhouse stage. But there were other complications. The excited audience, eager to talk back to the characters, disrupted the performers’ timing. And then a minor medical mishap backstage caused the production to be halted for about 10 minutes.

In one of his direct address soliloquies after the show resumed, Spears prefaced Juicy’s words by asking that any critics in the house take note of the gusto with which the actors continued their performances after the unexpected interruption. The cast was heroic but understandably rattled. Some stage business, including a crucial moment of violence between Juicy and Larry, was sloppily executed.

Spears’ portrayal of Juicy, however, is exceptional throughout. His balancing of deadpan wit and deep melancholy captures the play’s tonal spirit perfectly. Like Hamlet, Juicy doesn’t always behave in an exemplary fashion. Drowning in post-traumatic dejection, he occasionally falls short of his own high standards. But his compassionate intelligence is so luminous and his suffering so relatable that we forgive him his sins as we hope our own shortcomings will be forgiven.

“Fat Ham” doesn’t flinch from the harshness between intolerant parents and their queer children. But it is just as curious about the special bond between a gay son and his larger-than-life mother. Juicy loves Tedra not in the Freudian manner of hackneyed “Hamlet” productions but in the protective way of an outcast who wishes to shield his fabulous mom from the blows of life.

Juicy wants his mother to be safe, well and happy. He sticks around because he’s afraid of what might happen to her if he leaves. “Are you happy?” he asks with a heavy heart. When she answers, “What’s happy?” he mournfully replies, “Oh, momma.”

If this simple exchange is one of the most touching moments in the play, it’s because Spears and Crawford have created such a fully dimensional relationship. She never stops caring for him even when she helplessly submits to the brutality of another man. And Juicy never condemns her even after he finds out that she let Rev spend his tuition money on a cosmetic bathroom renovation.

In reminding us that we’re not the sum of our mistakes, Ijames asks us to consider what our lives would be like if we would choose, in Tio’s words, “pleasure over harm.” “Fat Ham” practices what it preaches by lavishing laughter and delight as it encourages us to take our destinies caressingly in hand.

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