KPBS AIRDATE: May 3, 1995
Shakespeare is rolling in his grave. Most likely, with laughter. On the week of the Bard’s 431st birthday, the San Diego Repertory Theatre opened “Goodnight Desdemona Good Morning Juliet,” a clever, satirical, sly, farcical Shakespearean comedy, if there ever was one.
All the elements are there: love, trust, betrayal, friendship, battle, bawdiness and cross-dressing.
Canadian playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald has crafted a funny, silly, updated, antiquated feminist parody, half-critical, half in jest, and often in iambic pentameter.
It all revolves around one Constance Ledbelly, an apt moniker for a mousy, self-effacing, spinster academic who’s convinced that “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet” were meant to be comedies. Thwarted irrevocably by the mentor who intellectually abuses her, Constance , part Alice in Wonderland, part Dorothy of Oz, gets sucked into her wastebasket and is transported centuries back in time, to meet her tormented heroines, Desdemona and Juliet.
Constance saves them both by interrupting the fateful scenes that would have brought on their demise. That liberates them, and frees them to appear to us as their purported rightful selves: in Desdemona’s case, a bellicose harridan, and in Juliet’s, an oversexed Valley Girl.
With its circuitous plotline, and high and low comic excesses, the production runs too loud at times and too long, and the play itself gets preachy, but it’s a very humorous skewering of the Academe, the Bard, and their misguided views of love, sex and womankind.
Sam Woodhouse’s direction tends toward the manic, but the physical comedy is hilarious, and he encourages excellent (though over-the-top) performances from his exceptional cast. Each plays multiple roles in various genders, from a wise fool who does standup shtick (“I just flew in from Padua, and ‘zounds, are my arms tired”), to a black-clad, fumbling, film noir gumshoe, spouting arcane aphorisms about alchemy; from an Igor-like Iago to a sexually uncertain Romeo. They’re all there, sixteen characters in all, played by five very versatile actors.
True to the theme, the women are especially strong: Darla Cash, at the center, more agile and comedic than she’s ever seemed; Shanésia David, really showing her stuff (much more so than in the Rep’s recent “Hamlet”) as that blood-thirsty Amazon, Desdemona, an obsequious servant and a swaggering Mercutio; and Jennifer Barrick brings pseudo-intellectual airheads to new heights. Fourteen year-old Juliet probably was closer to the petulant, sensual party-animal she is here than the demure damsel we’re so accustomed to.
Ron Campbell and Jonathan Fried are no slouches either. Both are actually best in drag, Campbell as a sexually confused Rome-ette, and Fried as Juliet’s ample-bosomed nurse. Everyone cavorts in Michelle Riel’s imaginative set of arches, columns and tomes.
There is a moral at the end, of course. Constance finds herself, her submerged sexuality, her lost appendix, and the key to “the beardless Bard” authorship she’s seeking.
It’s a lot crammed into 2-1/2 hours, but in the final analysis, it is, to quote from the play itself, “a wondrous feat of alchemy; it spins gray matter into precious gold.” And the jewels in the crown are the women — front and center, for a change. Kind of like Femmes on Thames …. Say goodnight, Desdemona. “Goodnight Desdemona.” “Good morning Juliet.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.