KPBS AIRDATE: July 1, 1991
When was the last time you saw “Hamlet”? Whatever details you may or may not recall, surely you remember that laughter was not your primary response to the melancholy Dane. But guffaws greet the nattering Norwegian, “Fortinbras,” the hero of Lee Blessing’s new play, a comic sequel to “Hamlet” currently having its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.
When the play opens, the stage is strewn with familiar bodies: King Claudius, Queen Gertrude and proud Laertes, and there’s Hamlet, breathing his last breath and making his friend Horatio promise to tell the true story of the destruction of the entire Danish royal house. Just as Hamlet dies, and Horatio utters those unforgettable Shakespearean lines about a cracking noble heart and flights of angels, in swaggers Fortinbras, breaking the mood, talking slangy, present-day English, and calling the whole proceedings to a hilarious halt.
And we’re off, on a whirlwind, Mr. Toad’s ride of high and low comedy, subtle and not-so-subtle “Hamlet” in-jokes, pratfalls and vaudeville routines, and a never-ending series of dying people re-appearing as ghosts and turning the lives of the living inside out.
When Fortinbras becomes king, he heralds a great Norwenish — or Dane-wegian — Age. But he doesn’t like the Hamlet death-story at all. He wants to create a new myth, an explanation of the royal Danish downfall that makes him look important. He comes up with the idea of a Polish spy that engineered the whole thing. Horatio is appalled. Osric is a pawn. The only other witness, Osric is a fawning sycophant; he’ll do anything the new king says — including pose as the Polish spy.
Meanwhile, there are all those ghosts. Through all the laughs, Blessing gets to make sobering statements about death. Try this one: “Death has been my greatest disappointment. It has all the uncertainty of life and
twice the solitude.” Or this: “Whatever you’re doing to prepare for death, don’t bother.” Or, on a lighter note, “You think eternity’s forever?”
The fascinating thing about Blessing’s ghosts is that post-mortem, each of them is precisely the opposite of what they were in life. Polonius is mute, for example. Gertrude and Claudius are overflowing with remorse. Laertes is passive. Ophelia is a major player. But Hamlet is still plagued by inertia.
Don’t think that the in-jokes mean you have to have read “Hamlet” yesterday. They’re mostly pretty transparent, and really quite clever, though sometimes things do get a bit silly.
But this is a wonderful inaugural event for the spectacular new 400-seat Mandell Weiss Forum, with its Elizabethan thrust stage. A perfect combo of the old and the new, the classic and the modern, the serious and the humorous.
And the performances are delectable: Daniel Jenkins a delightfully adolescent Fortinbras, the prototypical ineffectual politician. Laura Linney is a very sexual, feminist Ophelia who refuses to be “marginal” in any version of the Hamlet story. Ralph Bruneau is a strong and steadfast Horatio, the conscience of the thing. As Osric, Jefferson May is his ideal foil. Don Reilly’s Hamlet is attractive and intelligent, when he isn’t — oddly — trapped inside a TV.
Robert Brill has done it again with his scenic design — angular and monochromatic, set off perfectly by Susan Hilferty’s costumes — brightly colored for the living, ashen for the dead. Michael Roth’s inventive music and Chris Parry’s lighting complement the eerie look and feel.
Director Des McAnuff was obviously having a high time with all of this mayhem, which neatly pulls together his love of classics and comic antics.
You have to prepare to shift out of any mood of seriosity before you go see “Fortinbras.” As the title character says of his predecessors: “I’m not here to finish their story; they were here to begin mine.” And so they do. To hilarious effect.
I’m Pat Launer for KPBS Radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.