note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
This review first appeared in The Wayland (MA) Town Crier
"Fortinbras" now playing at Beatrice Herford's Vokes Theatre, is one funny show. Lee Blessing's script about what happens after the death of Hamlet is clever, and the energetic physicality of the acting is consistently entertaining. But the most striking thing about the production is the videogame-like backdrop, a scene-changing technique this reviewer has not encountered before but expects will catch on like wildfire.
Designer Dean O'Donnell's projections cover the rear wall of the stage, swooping the playgoer through castle corridors, up dank stone stairways, under medieval arches and out onto lonely battlements, where carrion birds circle high above. It's quite amazing. Another special effect that works well involves Hamlet (Gordon Ellis) appearing on a television monitor as a ghost -- but this technique is more familiar, having been pioneered 30 years ago in the Wooster Group's production of Gertrude Stein's "Faustus."
Like Gertrude Stein, Lee Blessing has a high old time reworking a well- known tale. "Hamlet" is so much a part of our culture that we can hear the unspoken words of Shakespeare's final scene, which opens "Fortinbras" in silent-film style. To ominous but jazzy music produced by Jerry Sheehan and BEAN, slow-motion sword play and poisonings unfold under flashing strobe lights. When the floor is littered with royal Danes in period dress, the man of action Fortinbras (Bill Stambaugh) in a modern suit and tie bursts on the scene -- ready to take charge.
His first order of business is to ask what happened. Hamlet's heartbroken friend (David Hansen as Horatio) offers a truthful account. But Fortinbras dubs the tale too implausible for public consumption and decides instead to proclaim that a Polish spy is responsible for the mayhem. The Danish people, he insists, are more likely to understand why a Norwegian has taken over their country if the explanation involves only one murderer with one motivation. Credibility is the ticket, not truth.
The denizens of Elsinore quickly realize that the new and untutored soldier king is cut from a different cloth than the brooding, indecisive Hamlet ("looking morose all the time and wearing earth tones"). But despite Fortinbras' confidence in his spin-doctoring, Elsinore's true history begins to exert its influence. "Something about this castle makes me want to talk to myself," he observes.
Having initially scoffed at the notion of Hamlet seeing his father's ghost, the skeptic is soon subjected to visitations by newer ghosts -- of Hamlet, Polonius (Robert Zawistowski), Ophelia (Melissa Sine in dominatrix black leather), Hamlet's mother (Pam Mayne as Gertrude), Ophelia's brother (Justin Dilley as Laertes) and Claudius (David Wood), the uncle who murdered Hamlet's father and married Gertrude.
The down-to-earth Fortinbras finds the company of spirits unsettling, to say the least. As events spin out of control, Horatio begs him to scrap the Polish-spy story, tell the truth, and give Claudius and Gertrude a burial more suited to murderers. But Fortinbras won't go back on the concocted story even to lay to rest the new crop of ghosts. "Kings don't make mistakes," Stambaugh intones as playgoers chuckle with recognition. "They reassess policies."
Stambaugh's over-the-top inflection, rubbery face and expressive body language make for a virtuoso performance. His eyebrow action alone deserves a paragraph. Hansen is a sensitive, intelligent Horatio, and Chris Wagner is charming as the go-along-to-get-along Osric. John Joyce as Fortinbras' military sidekick from Norway and Dilley as the effete, tennis- playing Laertes are hilarious to watch. Jonathan Sacramone as Marcellus and Brian Anderson as Barnado endure two crazy regimes with resilience and are ultimately rewarded with the Polish-speaking captives (played with sweet bewilderment by Lauren Shear and Mary Kate Rod).
Although the script stalls during metaphysical bits, director Darren Evans maintains a lively pace overall. Elizabeth Tustian's mix of contemporary and period costumes is right on the money, as is the lighting by Eric Jacobsen. Julia Noulin-Merat designed the basic castle for maximum flexibility, and set pieces glide on and off as the rear-screen projections change the scenes. The music by BEAN is of a high caliber, and producer John Barrett keeps all the "Fortinbras" pieces working together.
A special mention must be made of Donnie Baillargeon, who after several years of highly professional publicity work behind the scenes is passing along the torch after this show.
"Fortinbras" runs through March 19. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.