Onstage: Paul Giamatti in <i>Hamlet</i>

It's that rare evening of theater where something that was already familiar becomes new, yielding unexpected meaning and feelings.
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It's that rare evening of theater where something that was already familiar becomes new, yielding unexpected meaning and feelings.

It's not as if I've made a study of Hamlet. But I've seen probably a dozen different versions, on stage and film. That's something you do on purpose, because not many people do it voluntarily (and I consider that a failure of the American education system).

Still, when I saw Paul Giamatti play Hamlet recently at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven (a sold-out run that ends this weekend), I felt like I was hearing Shakespeare's language for the first time.

While I've seen modern-dress Shakespeare that I thought was effective, I can't remember a version that felt more contemporary. Director James Bundy, Yale Rep's artistic director, costumes the actors in clothes from different 20th-Century eras, but their interactions have a currency, a sense that these people are operating right now, rather than enacting a story written as the 1600s loomed.

That's particularly true of Giamatti's Hamlet, who struggles between the anguish he truly feels and the affect of sly insanity that he puts on for others. His sudden emotional outbursts, often humorous for their unexpected manic quality, have a modern anxiety and neurosis, though communicated through Shakespeare's language.

I also liked Marc Kudisch's Claudius (he plays the Ghost of Hamlet Sr., as well). Kudisch captured the sense of monarch as corporate giant: imperious, petty, dangerous. Even in his smaller gestures, he was channeling his inner Donald Trump - yet was convincing in moments when Claudius' guilt gnaws at him most, as well as in his resignation at his own weakness.

Throughout, there's a sense of modern imperative: Let's get this done now and move on. Yet Giamatti's Hamlet, played as an aging grad student who has lost his direction, quivers with anger and pathos. His heart is broken by his father's death, his sense of justice riled by his discovery that the death was a murder. His mind is working too fast for its own good sometimes, even as it strings him up in a tangle of indecision at other moments.

There's also a surprising playfulness, as though the emotion-besotted Hamlet is not too overwhelmed to realize that he's messing with everyone's impression of him. There's just enough of the prankster in him to savor the impact when he actually says what he's thinking, instead of what he's supposed to say.

In that sense, Giamatti also lets Hamlet's deep sense of humanity - his sense of absurdity as well as his innate decency - show through. On film, Giamatti is a transparent actor, his thoughts playing out on his face and in his eyes. Even from the distance of the stage, he still manages the feat in this Hamlet, surprising with unexpected tonal choices that change your understanding of a particular moment or scene.

For a show that runs three-and-a-half-hours, Hamlet never drags. Bundy has created a sleek production of great clarity, led by Giamatti's thoughtful, compelling title character.

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