David Carl’s Celebrity One-Man Hamlet

Co-Created and Performed David Carl

Co-Created and Directed by Michole Biancosino

Produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, with Richard Jordan Productions and PM2 Entertainment

Hamlet’s False Evidence Appears Real

Every time I told someone I was going to see the Gary Busey one-man Hamlet at Chicago Shakespeare, I got the same reaction: disbelief, followed by horror. The show doesn’t actually star Gary Busey, but his impersonator, David Carl, does begin it by acknowledging that the question on everyone’s mind is, “Why?” Why do a show about a possibly brain-damaged actor interpreting every role in Hamlet with the aid of puppets, projections, facial spasms, and acronyms? The answer, “Busey” says, is to prove that he can. And for a hilarious seventy-five minutes, we can watch a slow-rolling disaster interlaced with occasional flashes of genius as Carl pars down Shakespeare’s longest play into a rapid-fire series of commentaries, deluded sidetracks, and high tragedy.

Photo by Giancarlo Osaben

A major reason for the show’s success is that Carl allows Busey to actually have a solid knowledge of Hamlet. He casually muses on the significance of stage directions such as the guards’ non-verbal oath to the prince, and that the ghost tells Hamlet “adieu” three times, but Hamlet only answers back twice. Carl is also capable of delivering the rhetoric several scenes require, even while wearing a massive set of fake teeth. His characterization choices are all have a solid textual basis, and he frequently mocks the plot, which is famously thin until it rapidly becomes convoluted. Through it all, Busey interrupts himself by confusing which story he is telling, going on weird tirades about his career, and arguing with himself as both characters in the dialogue he was just performing.

Photo by Jeanette Sears.

It would be a disservice to the audience reveal all of the staging devices Carl uses, but an early example of his creativity, and the show’s surprisingly slick, albeit minimal, design is his treatment of the ghost. “Busey’s” white-painted face is projected on a large screen at back, so he can leer down at his flesh-and-blood counterpart, torment him, and demand revenge. The conflicts between the live actor and the pre-recorded version recur throughout the show, and at times, “Busey” argues with someone only he can see, who may or may not be another Hamlet character. It flows very nicely into the story, though, and Carl is also a master of audience interactions. Director Michole Biancosino has kept the show very tight, while leaving just enough room for Carl to quickly build on the energy in the room.

If anyone saw Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio here last month, they will understand the kind of textual deconstruction Carl is going for, only with much higher energy and more absurdity. Carl is also an immensely talented impressionist (he also does Busey’s former reality show boss, Donald Trump), and peppers his presentation with just the right proportion of strange noises and mood swings to make it believable that the real Gary Busey, instead of just a caricature, is onstage. Carl is also a skilled improviser, as shown during the post-show talk-back (plan your questions ahead of time, so you’ll get a chance to learn the secret meaning of the letters in your name). Hamlet is an appropriate show for this treatment, since the prince fakes or exaggerates his mental illness for ulterior motives, and while watching the show, it’s impossible to know to what extent “Busey” is crazy and to what extent he’s just a very effective entertainer. But as the man himself would tell you, fun doesn’t require understanding, and despite everything, Carl’s affection for the target of his parody is quite evident.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis

[email protected]

Reviewed July 12, 2016

For more information, see David Carl’s Celebrity One-Man Hamlet’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s upstairs at Navy Pier, 800 E Grand Ave, Chicago. Tickets start at $35; to order, call 312-595-5600 or visit Performances are through July 17. Running time is seventy-five minutes.