By Michael H. Margolin
In William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” he says to the Players about to enact a play for the royal family: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” Earlier on, Polonius gave advice to his son, among other things, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”.
Polonius ends up done in by a sword, and Hamlet dies of poison and maybe a wound or two. So, I am heedful, then, to give too much advice to the cast and director of the Hilberry Theatre’s production of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet),” a mash up of sit-comedy, burlesque, time travel and two of Shakespeare’s immortal plays, “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
This play, which aims to parody Shakespeare – and uses some of his lines – and also includes campy comedy and gender twisting, needs a firm directorial hand. At first it is a woman’s story, then an experiment in time travel, and so on. But director, Anthony Schmitt seems to choose any means just to keep it moving. At times it is too broad – vulgar – as in repeated references to “Tom, DICK (with a knowing look to the audience in case we are the fools and don’t get it) and Harry.” Did I mention the crotch grabbing?
The first scene in the contemporary office of a Canadian university – which sets up the quest and the character of the lead, Constance Ledbelly – is like an uncorked red wine that is drunk immediately and not given time to breathe.
With a name like Ledbelly, certainly a poor choice for an intellectual with Shakespearean pretensions, Vanessa Sawson is already challenged. She plays the character with vigor and forthrightness, but not enough quirkiness that, let’s say, Amy Sedaris or Kristin Chenoweth would bring to the role: an edge.
The play progresses in scene two to Cyprus. Constance, like Alice, travels there via a hole – in this case, a huge garbage can in her office. There she engages Desdemona (Chelsea Ortuno), Othello (Chris Call) and Iago (Miles Boucher), whose line readings are limp.
In Act II, Constance ends up, via a nice time-travel light effect by lighting designer Brian M. Scruggs, in Verona, in time to interfere with Romeo and Juliet, which the playwright then turns into a farce, like “Noises Off.” Characters from other plays – like Yorick in Hamlet and Desdemona, escaped from her pillowy death – turn up. Romeo dresses as a woman, Constance is dressed like a boy and pursued by both genders, but the timing is flaccid or frantic, and though it reminds one of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it simply hurries on under Schmitt’s direction without emphasis.
The actors try hard: Danielle Cochrane (Juliet), Ty Mitchell (Romeo) David Sterritt (Mercutio) and Joshua Miller as Tybalt (who has the grace and vocals of a competent Shakespearean, and in the good Nira Pullin choreography, shows a talent for dance movement).
That is as far as I will go lest I find Hilberry’s rapier between my ribs. Which I will deserve if I fail to mention the remaining actors: Alec Barbour (Chorus), Joe Plambeck (Servant), Brandon Grantz (Soldier), Annie Keris (Ramona), Megan Dobbertin (Julie), Sarah Hawkins Moan (Juliet’s Nurse), Topher Payne (Claude Night, and also quite funny in his brief stint as Yorick, who tells awful, old one-liners that seem better for his delivery and body English).
I enjoyed Anne Suchyta’s costumes; I couldn’t tell Cyprus from Verona if my life depended on it in Michael Wilkki’s design. And why there is not a simple chair in Constance’s office for her purse, which she flings on the floor, is a mystery.
The whole shebang was directed by Schmitt in a slapdash fashion, with some wit, but failing to heed the next bit of Hamlet’s advice to the players: “But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines.”
‘Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)’
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in rotating repertory through Feb. 9. 2 hours, 25 minutes. $12-$30. 313-577-2972. http://www.Hilberry.com