The study of Shakespeare is inevitable in theater. From literary studies to vast acting intensives, the Bard is with us—like it or not. This double-carbon bond has inspired many plays, including titles like The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and provides countless opportunities for playwrights to bring Shakespeare's classic world into modern theater. The Vortex Theatre presents two such plays in repertory, I Hate Hamlet and Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), throughout July. Both productions gaze into Shakespeare's world through a less-than-original lens, and both do it with a touch of humor.
Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), written by Ann-Marie MacDonald and directed by Victoria Liberatori, brings the scholarly excavation of Shakespeare to the stage in a very hands-on way. Assistant Professor Constance Ledbelly (Bridget Kelly) is determined to crack the code of an ancient text to prove Shakespeare's classic tragedies Othello and Romeo and Juliet were originally comedies by another author. Ledbelly is a workaholic, a characteristic her boss capitalizes on, and her life's work is viewed as a fool's errand by fellow academics.
Enter the power of Shakespeare.
After a particularly ego-busting encounter with Professor Claude Knight (Benjamin Liberman), the text Ledbelly has vehemently been studying reveals its magic by sucking her through a trash can and into the world of the Bard. Ledbelly finds herself observing Iago (Drew Groves) as he feeds Othello (also played by Liberman) false information leading to the death of Desdemona (Lori Stewart). Confident she can turn Othello into a comedy, Ledbelly intervenes, exposing Iago's treachery and saving Desdemona, and brings the wrath of the tragedy upon herself. Soon after befriending Desdemona and thoroughly rewriting the play, Ledbelly is transported to Verona, where she makes sure Romeo's (Groves) marriage to Juliet (Heather Yeo) is known to all, and the Midsummer Night's Dream-like escapades begin.
If Othello and Romeo and Juliet weren't comedies before, they are in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)—and not in the classical sense. As Ledbelly stirs up trouble in the name of saving lives, she also creates ridiculous situations in what she herself calls "comedy gone awry." MacDonald proves herself a clever writer, giving each character witty lines versed in iambic pentameter. The cast does a fine job timing the poetic, if sometimes petty, jabs—only some of which will be lost on those unfamiliar with Will Shakespeare's world. Goodnight Desdemona isn't a blatant, blow-
Kelly's portrayal of the mousey Ledbelly is endearing, presenting an unconfident brainiac with a penchant for over-explaining. She keeps Ledbelly grounded even as everything around her boils over—a key element keeping Goodnight Desdemona from being a full-blown melodrama. But the dramatics play well for other characters, especially while Ledbelly visits Romeo and Juliet. Groves, through his multiple roles, taps into his Shakespearean reserves to bring a classic touch to his characters, even the flamboyant Romeo. Groves stands out due to his smooth transitions between roles, playing Iago—lead by his scheming brain—and Romeo—lead by his scheming man parts. Yeo's Juliet is driven by similar motivations as her star-crossed lover, and she undulates suggestively to make it known. Yeo takes her roles to the most extreme side of the satiric spectrum, which works in the frantic last scenes. Liberman and Stewart are solid in their performances and, as their characters aren't the most outwardly comical (save Liberman as Juliet's nurse), aid Kelly in keeping Goodnight Desdemona’s feet hoveringly slightly above ground. The fight scenes between Liberman and Stewart as Tybalt and Mercutio, respectively, are a highlight of the production. Three cheers to the fight masters! And kudos to director Victoria Liberatori for the great '80s music used throughout the show.
As Goodnight Desdemona looks at the text of Shakespeare, I Hate Hamlet dives into what it means to perform Shakespeare. Written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Brian Hansen, I Hate Hamlet opens in the newly inhabited New York apartment of TV actor Andrew Rally (Ryan Jason Cook). With his prime-time medical drama canceled, Andrew has moved to New York City to reinvigorate his career. His fan/real estate broker Felicia Dantine (Linda Williams) has found him the perfect place: A loft once owned by John Barrymore (Dean Eldon Squibb), a long-dead mega-movie star who was best known for his exquisite portrayal of Hamlet. Andrew's less than thrilled with the apartment, but his sweeter-than-candy girlfriend Deirdre (Leigh-Ann Santillanes) and his agent Lillian (Leslee Richards) agree Felicia's picked the perfect place, especially in light of Andrew's recent casting as Hamlet in “Shakespeare in the Park.” Despite Andrew's protests, the women conduct a séance to contact Barrymore in hopes he will give Andrew advice on playing the Prince of Denmark. The séance doesn't get Barrymore's attention, but Andrew's adamant hatred of Hamlet does and soon Andrew's up to his ears in sonnets, sword fights and Barrymore's ethereal commentary.
Hamlet has long been regarded as the Holy Grail of a theater actor's career (partly why Andrew hates it). The prince is maddeningly complex with a overly developed sense of revenge, fake insanity and intense passion. I Hate Hamlet captures the internal struggle of an actor preparing for the role and puts it under the stage lights. I Hate Hamlet is an homage to Shakespeare's great tragedy, and it’s devilishly funny.
While I Hate Hamlet gets off to a slow start, once Barrymore shows up, the play takes off. This production is well cast and every performer holds his or her weight. Williams nails the fast-paced New York real estate agent, and actor Robert Johnson counters her with the slimy-smooth California producer bound to sign Andrew to another TV goldmine. Richards aces the comedic timing as the elderly Lillian, a strong woman not short on wit. Santillanes plays the virginal Deirdre as if she were Hamlet's Ophelia and dances about the stage with such a glow, its easy to see why Andrew is smitten with her.
Cook keeps Andrew likable, revealing his vulnerabilities and weaknesses rather than playing him as an arrogant, failed TV actor. Cook's back and forth with Squibb’s Barrymore are easily the most enjoyable parts of I Hate Hamlet.
But Squibb is the star of this production, both because Barrymore is written as such and because Squibb is fantastic in this role. It's clear Squibb is comfortable in tights with an affixed codpiece, delivering Shakespeare with confidence, almost arrogance, as Barrymore isn't the most humble of actors. If Squibb hasn't played Hamlet, he should. If he has, the Duke City demands an encore.