There’s a method to David Carl’s madness, as ‘Celebrity One-Man Hamlet’ will prove this weekend


It wasn’t that long ago that actor David Carl’s chief connection to theater was as a teenage cater-waiter at one of Kitchen Dog Theater’s annual Hooch & Pooch fundraising parties. Now living, writing and acting in NYC, Carl, a Lake Highlands High School grad, is back in Dallas at the Hooch & Pooch gala — only he’s not serving canapés, but serving up Shakespeare as the event’s main entertainment. His solo comedy show, David Carl’s Celebrity One-Man Hamlet, has him not just dipping in and out of all the roles in the Bard’s classic tragedy, but playing them as channeled through the eccentric tics, vocal yips and enormous teeth of his fellow Texan, Gary Busey.

“Some of you may be asking in your mind-heartspace, why?” says Carl to the audience as he launches into his spot-on impression of Busey. He lets Busey answer the question: “To prove to you I still have the chops!” (Carl also plays Busey in the long-running off-off-Broadway hit Point Break Live!)

Condensing Shakespeare’s five long acts of Hamlet into 70 bonkers-goofy minutes of soliloquies (delivered by finger puppets, all made by Carl and adorned with different Busey heads) and sword fights with himself via video, Carl breaks character occasionally to let “Gary” ruminate about his own career highlights: The Buddy Holly Story, Lethal Weapon, The Firm, Independence Day. The subtext is that Busey, now consigned to the reality show scrapheaps of Celebrity Apprentice and Big Brother (the U.K. version, which he won), is a way better actor than we remember.

Celebrity One-Man Hamlet may mock the Bard (Carl omits a few scenes, declaring them “non-essential” to the plot) but it doesn’t insult Busey. It’s affectionate parody, says Carl, whose high-octane performance has earned five-star reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe, write-ups in The New York Times and a booking as a mainstage draw at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival.

Bringing it back home to Kitchen Dog is “a dream come true for me,” Carl says during a recent phone chat from his briefly-snowbound apartment in Manhattan. “I remember watching plays at Kitchen Dog when I was in high school and thinking, this is the kind of place I want to work someday. I’ve always wanted to come back and do a show there. On these terms, it’s more than I could ask for.”

Saturday night’s performance will mark the 75th time Carl has done his One-Man Hamlet since its debut in 2015 … and the first time he’s performed in his hometown as a professional actor. “It’s still so much fun to do this show,” he says. “It feels fresh every time. And I’m so happy that I get to do it for family and friends in Dallas.”

One-Man Hamlet is not the only Shakespeare-inspired solo in Carl’s repertoire, however. Premiering April 1 at The People’s Improv Theater in NYC is his latest (co-created with writing-directing partner Michole Biancosino): Trump Lear, which sounds even more intriguing than Gary Busey as the Prince of Denmark. And just as meta.

“It’s about what would happen if I did a show where I play an actor named David Carl playing Donald Trump playing King Lear,” Carl explains. Trump Lear casts Trump’s daughter Ivanka as Lear’s daughter Cordelia. Don Jr. and Eric become Goneril and Regan. “Ronald Reagan is Trump’s Kent,” says Carl, doing a deep dive into connections between the past and present GOP and Shakespeare’s mad king.

Is there a part for the nefarious Roy Cohn, the gay attorney who Trump has often said coached him in the finer points of manipulating media? “I thought about having Roy Cohn in Trump Lear, but I didn’t,” says Carl. “It’s dark enough without him, a lot darker tone than my One-Man Hamlet.”

Carl started impersonating Donald Trump during last year’s election season in a series of improv shows staged as presidential candidate debates. When his blustery impression of Trump started “winning” fake debates, to the cheers of audiences in New York and Boston, Carl says he began to fear how the election would turn out.

“I worried about it all the time,” he says. “It was scary. Very scary. I think all of our rights are in jeopardy now. The only thing I know to do is create art that addresses that in some way and makes people think about it. It’s not enough to do art. But it’s also important to do more art.”

Has portraying Trump given him any insights into the real man? “I think whatever it is about him that’s positive, he’s buried it under many layers of hate and bravado and having to win and never accepting blame,” says Carl. “The thing that concerns me the most about him is this idea that he never apologizes and yet he calls himself a protestant. One of the easiest things to do as a Christian is forgive people. It’s the easiest lesson. It’s not a lot to ask. He just won’t do it at all. That’s just one of probably a thousand grievances I have about the guy. He certainly has normalized hatred. He’s a dangerous man and he’s our president. And I hate that. And I hate that I’m scared to say that. But it’s true.

“I grew up in Texas in the ’80s and ’90s and maybe I didn’t know how conservative it was politically, but at the end of a baseball game we always said ‘good game’ to the other side,” Carl continues. “It’s scary to think about little kids being nasty to each other now because they see the president doing that. They’ll grow up to be awful adults.” (David’s dad, William J. Carl III, served as head pastor at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Dallas for 22 years.)

Having rewritten Hamlet and King Lear — arguably Shakespeare’s two greatest plays about crazy rulers — Carl says he’s just happy that his broadly satiric versions seem to entertain both dedicated scholars and Bard-phobes. “We’re taught that Shakespeare is this really serious thing that requires years of scholarship and classical training, but it’s also really fun to be silly with it.”

To thine own spoof, be true.                 

— Elaine Liner

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 24, 2017.