If you haven’t got tickets to see Paul Giamatti play the melancholy prince in the Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of Hamlet, you’re pretty much out of luck. The show is entirely sold out, with long waiting lists of people hoping that a few of those ticket holders will get indisposed or called away.
Sorry to rub it in, but we could add that you’ve also missed Paul Giamatti at Yale many times already.
When Paul Giamatti’s movie career began taking off, with noteworthy supporting roles in films such as Sergeant Hill in Saving Private Ryan and Kenny (a.k.a. “Pig Vomit”) in Howard Stern’s Private Parts, Entertainment Weekly egregiously opined that this was not the sort of actor we could ever expect to see in leading-man roles. Of course, Giamatti would later headline many great films, from the civil-servant comic book saga American Splendor to the wine-snob road-tripping Sideways to the revolutionary HBO miniseries John Adams.
But long before those—even before his first five seconds of fame on film, as the “Kissing Man” in Singles who barks “What?!!” when seen smooching his girlfriend in the booth of a restaurant—Giamatti was turning heads for his live stage performances, including years of leading roles in plays at Yale.
Now he’s playing a homebound Danish prince but back in the early 1990s, he was a very different sort of Prince in Carlo Gozzi’s magical comedy The Love of Three Oranges, staged at the Yale School of Drama in 1993 by Kamyar Atabai. Giamatti remained sensible in a production that owed a lot to the surrealist art of Dali, Magritte and Georgia O’Keeffe. In another epic fantasy odyssey of a play, Giamatti was the flawed everyman “hero” in Jean Randich’s exhilarating production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, in the spring of ’94, fighting off a gang of naked trolls. Both Gynt and Three Oranges were staged at the Yale University Theater where Hamlet is being done now. On a smaller scale, Giamatti appeared in a pristine gem of a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Bear, which was directed by acclaimed Yale School of Drama acting teacher (and Chekhov expert) Earle Gister at the underground Yale Cabaret space. It was the last show Gister ever directed at the Cabaret.
Giamatti had supporting roles in a number of School of Drama shows. He was Esteban in Lope de Vega’s 17th-century Spanish play Fuente Ovejuna, wore squeaky shoes as Semyon Yepihodov in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a pauper in Moliere’s dark comedy Don Juan and (long before he played John Adams on HBO) was a mangy President George H.W. Bush in Mac Wellman’s social satire Coat Hanger.
If that sounds like a quirky resume, Giamatti’s undergrad acting experiences might have been even odder. He was in the parodic revue The Coarse Acting Show, and was one of a crowd of young students who yelped and bellowed scripts, concocted by the Dada artists of early 20th-century Europe, for a special 25th-anniversary celebration of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1988.
Paul Giamatti’s visage is emblazoned on one of those giant “New Haven Notables” posters which the Chapel West Special Services District has hung on buildings throughout the Upper Chapel and Dwight/Edgewood neighborhoods. Meryl Streep’s on one of the posters too, in honor of the three years in which she attended the Yale School of Drama. But Paul Giamatti not only went to the School of Drama, he got his undergraduate degree at Yale as well. He was also born and raised in the city, where his father A. Bartlett Giamatti was a popular professor in Yale’s Department of English and master of Stiles College before becoming president of the university from 1978 to 1986. Paul’s brother Marcus also attended Yale and became an actor, notably on the Hartford-set TV series Judging Amy.
So Giamatti is Hamlet, and New Haven is the hamlet he called home for half his life.
As for Hamlet, wherein the conscience of a king is caught, it has been performed countless times, in countless ways, at Yale over the years. There was Ophelia: Opera in Blue, in which director May Adrales and a four-person cast reworked the play’s text to emphasize another character in the play, the doomed young daughter of Polonius. That was at the Yale Cabaret, but Adrales also did a separate student production of Hamlet, starring John Hines. There was New Yorick, New Yorick, a pop culture pastiche by Jim Anzide, in which Hamlet was blended with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and actors said stuff like “Something’s rotten in the borough of Brooklyn” and “To sell or not to sell—that is the $64,000 question.” Director Kristen Reinhardt did a Hamlet in 1991 where Ophelia’s mad scene was staged as a vaudeville striptease routine.
The current production isn’t the first Hamlet to be staged as part of the Yale Repertory Theatre subscription season. It was done in 1992 when Stan Wojewodski was Dean of the School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Rep. Wojewodski would use one slot of the Rep season each year for a production cast entirely with School of Drama students. In 1992 he directed Hamlet, with the title role played on alternate nights by Brendan Corbalis and Melody Garrett. When it was the 1994 graduating class’s turn to do a Shakespeare play on the Rep stage, it was As You Like It and Giamatti (as Jacques) got to deliver the famous “all the world’s a stage” monologue.
Giamatti graduated from the acting program of the Yale School of Drama just a year before James Bundy, who is now directing him. Bundy became the dean of the YSD and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2002 (succeeding Wojewodski) and is currently in his third five-year term running those institutions. He directs regularly at the Yale Rep, everything from outright classics (Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well) to lesser-known works by major playwrights (Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance) to new plays (Amy Freed’s The Psychic Life of Savages, Lillian Groag’s The Ladies of the Camellias). His student thesis production, in October of 1994, was Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
If you look at the credits above, you find Chekhov’s name coming up as often as Shakespeare’s. Seeing as Hamlet’s sold out, may we humbly suggest Uncle Vanya as Bundy & Giamatti’s follow-up project? Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years for them to get together at Yale again.
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photo (of Jarlath Conroy as the Gravedigger and Paul Giamatti as Hamlet) by Joan Marcus.