David Carl’s Celebrity One-Man Hamlet gives us Hamlet through the lens of the wonderfully weird and manic actor, Gary Busey. (The show ran eighty minutes and was staged in the black-box theater, Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.) Nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story (1978), Busey’s promising career was derailed by a catastrophic motorcycle accident in 1988 that left him with severe head injuries (he wasn’t wearing a helmet and remains to this day an advocate against mandatory helmet laws). In interviews Busey claims to have passed over and “been to the other side” and, by dint of this near-death experience, considers himself something of a spiritual emissary-qua-motivational speaker: “…my brain has been altered… to a high dimension in the spiritual realm. And that’s where I operate consciously and unconsciously.”
Although he still acted in major films after the accident (Lethal Weapon, Point Break), lately Busey is more known for cultish roles in films such as Sharknado 4, cameos as himself in Entourage, and for his participation in a range of reality television shows including Celebrity Apprentice and Celebrity Big Brother: UK, which he won (and if you haven’t seen his episode of Celebrity Wife Swap alongside disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard, you are not living your best life).
To be sure, Busey is also warmly energetic and engaging—like a friendly yellow Lab sent to earth to empower us with New Age words of wisdom that frequently take the form of initialisms: “You know what ‘FEAR’ stands for? It stands for ‘False Evidence Appearing Real.’” “You know what ‘FAILING’ stands for? It stands for ‘Finding An Important Lesson, Inviting Needed Growth.’” Carl incorporates similarly nonsensical Buseyisms throughout his show and—to great effect—within an engaging “talk-back” after the performance where Carl, as Busey, takes questions about his career and then makes slogans out of the letters of the askers’ first names. The contrast, then, between the melancholic Hamlet and the defiantly exuberant Busey is pronounced—although the real-life Busey certainly shares Hamlet’s penchant for gnomic utterances, in Hamlet’s case spoken to keep people at bay, in Busey’s case…less clear? Because he’s Busey and/or because he’s cannily embracing and exploiting the public’s impression of him as unhinged?
Costumed in a Hawaiian shirt and board shorts and sporting giant dentures that capture Busey’s distinctively large teeth, Carl-as-Busey breezes through each scene of the play, taking on all the roles and ruthlessly skipping over all the “unnecessary” bits (in structure and speed I was reminded of Richard Curtis’s Skinhead Hamlet). To play each part Busey either voiced a paper cutout hand-puppet or embodied the role himself, his Polonius especially memorable (and irritating) for his cringing, Uriah Heep-like facial expression and posture. Some of the roles were also prerecorded and then projected on a screen so that the live Busey could play against his filmed self: Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost of Old Hamlet was conveyed in this fashion, as was one excellent, splendidly timed and choreographed action sequence where the onstage Busey fought in “real” time against a screen Laertes over the grave of Ophelia. One exception: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear as a projected film still of Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in those parts from the 1990 film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. (Carl-as-Busey: “I knew Tim Roth before he got famous…we used to walk through the La Brea tar pits trading taco recipes.”)
Very little of the actual text of the play makes it into the production, the “rogue and peasant slave” speech, for example, veering off-script into a brilliant set of acting instructions to the players covering the highlights of Busey’s career. The production furthermore incorporated both live and prerecorded music, Carl is also a deft singer. One of my favorite moments was Carl-as-Busey-as-Ophelia singing the ‘90s Cranberries hit ”Zombie” in the mad scene. For the deaths that rapidly accumulate in the fifth act, Busey unceremoniously popped the heads off of the paper cutout dolls before dying himself. Interestingly—and I don’t quite know what to make of this—for the death of Polonius the “Busey” persona abruptly stopped the scene, telling us that he found it too painful to perform that particular death.
I loved the performance’s closing sequence. Busey knows Benedict Cumberbatch (of course), and Cumberbatch told him that one ought always to close a Shakespeare production with a talk-back. In addition to the audience banter I mentioned above, Busey solemnly intones that he’s learned something from performing this revenge tragedy. It’s not wise to hold a grudge; maybe now he’s ready to call up Jon Voight and finally forgive him for beating him in that Best Actor category back in ’79.
Funny, silly, and consistently engaging, the only drawback to the production—as I learned from one of my students who was in attendance—would be a lack of familiarity with the Gary Busey of current popular culture. The show is more about Busey’s current persona than it is a parody of Hamlet; to a spectator unfamiliar with Busey and his career, Carl’s performance, if intrinsically comic, might also seem bewildering. I can’t make up my mind whether this conceit—Carl performing celebrity one-man Shakespeares—could bear future installments; “Nicolas Cage’s One-Man Coriolanus,” perhaps?
Andrea Stevens is an associate professor of English, theatre and medieval studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she specializes in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Virginia, an MA in literature from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a BA (Honors) in English from Huron University College in London, Ontario.