Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 1991
Hamlet is dead (has been for about 400 years). So is Ophelia. And Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes. So who’s alive for the sequel? The stalwart Norwegian, Fortinbras.
“Fortinbras” is the title of Lee Blessing’s new comedy, whose world premiere is June 23 at the La Jolla Playhouse. “The whole world of Hamlet fascinates me,” said the playwright recently from his home in Minneapolis . “”There’s something about the legend that’s archetypally powerful in Western culture. At the end of the play, Fortinbras is the only royalty onstage who’s not dying or dead. Hamlet says he thinks Fortinbras will be and should be the next king of Denmark . It intrigued me to look at what happened after “Hamlet” ends.
“So I’ve wound up with some odd characters and an odd take on the whole world of the play. It’s in very contemporary speech. I’m not trying to evoke Elizabethan language or style… This might be the largest cast I’ve ever used — ten or eleven. And wouldn’t you know it — a few ghosts come back. We may see Hamlet again. And even Ophelia. I’m an Equal Opportunity Ghost Employer.”
Blessing is more forthcoming about the ideas of the play than its specific content.. “The world of “Hamlet” is sort of timeless. It’s fundamentally a play about the very untidy relationship between civilizing forces in human beings and the urge toward revenge. What is justice and how do you mete it out in a world where evil seems to be more effective than good? Fortinbras doesn’t have a revenge problem; no one’s wronged him. But he has lots of pragmatic problems. The first is whether or not he should publicize the incredible story Horatio tells him about the demise of the Danish court. He doesn’t consider it a very appropriate or useful story. He might even create a new one for his own uses. I wouldn’t put it past him.”
It’s hard for Blessing to be less than cryptic about a new play because he does so much rewriting during rehearsals. When he was here at the Playhouse working on “”Down the Road,” he rewrote 80 pages of the script. It’s a great collaborative relationship, according to Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse.
“Lee’s a lot of fun to be with. There’s something about his Midwest sensibility that appeals to me. We’re from similar backgrounds (I’m from Toronto ), the same generation and I think we share a world view.
“The first three plays we commissioned from Lee represent a kind of trilogy,” McAnuff continues. “They were about media as a contemporary battlefield, in terms of nuclear issues (the multiple award-winning “A Walk in the Woods”, 1987), the hostage crisis (“Two Rooms”, 1988) and serial killers (“Down the Road”, 1989). When Lee and I talked about another commission, I said, ‘If you want to go a little wild, feel free.’ And it is pretty zany. Lee’s a very funny guy, and his writing is funny.
“But “Fortinbras” is topical, too. It’s about the contemporary amorality in politics and power. It also looks into death and the nature of ghosts. And there’s a great deal of love and sex. It’s just as steamy and incestuous as the play that inspired it. I love the idea of using “Hamlet” as a comic trampoline.”
“Fortinbras” provides the inaugural springboard for the new Mandell Weiss Forum, a 400-seat thrust theater that will be shared by the UCSD Department of Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse. “It should be a real event,” says McAnuff. “A thrust stage and Elizabethan seating arrangement, but in a state-of-the-art theater which is a wonderful sandbox for contemporary staging and pyrotechnics. It’s a terrific, eclectic christening for our space, a great combination of our classical and contemporary work.”
In the past few years, San Diego has had lots of Blessings. In addition to the Playhouse offerings, the Yale Repertory Theatre production of “Cobb” came to the Old Globe last year, and the San Diego Actors Theatre mounted an earlier play, “Eleemosynary.”
It’s a blessing for the author to be back in town. “”I think San Diego is one of the best theater cities in the world,” says the low-keyed, high-profile playwright. “There’s an embarrassment of riches. It’s hard to find theaters like the Playhouse and the Globe that present so many new plays, and promote them in the right way — not to create product and go for the business side, but in support of the writer.”
He’s finally allowing himself to talk about a Westward move, now that the kids are grown (ages 19 and 16). Blessing’s wife of five years, Jeanne Blake, has served as dramaturge and director of his works. Now they’re collaborating on a screenplay, having just finished a cable TV film called “ Cooperstown ”, about the baseball Hall of Fame. But for now, he’s retreating from the diamond to the greensward.
“The new play should make a great evening of theater,” Blessing says with a laugh. “No matter how badly I screw it up.”
“Fortinbras” runs from June 23 through July 28 at the new Mandell Weiss Forum on the UCSD campus in La Jolla .
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.