By Lee Blessing
Directed by John Edward O'Brien
At the New Broadway Theatre
Somerville, MA (617) 625-1300 Closed

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The New Broadway Theatre's area premiere features the latest in the series of Shakespearean pastiche turned out by writers who seem determined to spin off every character in the canon. This one's particular hero, Fortinbras, is a character from "Hamlet" so minor that he's usually cut out in performance All this warlike prince, the son of Old Hamlet's defeated rival the King of Norway, has to do in the original is march (offstage) through Denmark to attack Poland in order to motivate Hamlet's "How all occasions do inform against me and spur my dull revenge" soliloquy-- often cut, too--, and enter late in the last scene to clean up the bodies and claim the Danish throne.

That's where Lee Blessing's script starts, Act V, scene II in the Great Hall of Elsinore Castle. A black doublet-clad Hamlet (Brian Turner) gasps out his dying "report me and my cause aright" , and Horatio (Rodney Raftery) in striped velvet pancake pants is giving the friend of his bosom his valedictory: "Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." Baby-faced Fortinbras (Josh Pritchard), incarnate as a contemporary commander in rumpled khaki fatigues, enters, and the Shakespearean afflatus drops like a popped balloon. Eyeing the corpses draped artfully about the stage, the kid says: "They all just kill each other, or what?"

Horatio and Osric (Liesl Hoffman) -- a female character in the New Broadway production -- are the only members of the Danish court left alive. When Horatio tells Fortinbras what skullduggery it was that wiped out the royal family and a significant part of the nobility, Fortinbras decides that the truth is politically inexpedient. They'd better come up with a plausible cover story to boost the Danish morale -- how about blaming the whole thing on a Polish spy?

The way Blessing gets around the disadvantage of beginning his story when all the interesting characters are dead is to bring them back as ghosts. They all show up, in contempory attire: Claudius (Ben Kendall) and Gertrude (Priscilla McRoberts) lustful and repentant, Ophelia (Jennifer O'Donnell) lustful and bitter, Polonius (Jim Blanchette) reduced to silence by his humiliating ineffectuality, Laertes (Rob Bettencourt) so obtuse he may not yet realize that he's dead, and Hamlet himself -- somehow trapped inside a portable TV.

According to the author's forward in Blessing's latest collection of plays, "Fortinbras" came about because the Mark Taper Theatre in Los Angeles gave Blessing a commission to write a script for their new performance space that would be vaguely "classic", provide a number of good roles for gradate student actors, and show off the theatre's spiffy new scenic facilities. The New Broadway Theatre -- Broadway, here, being not the Great White Way, but a largish street in Sommerville Massachusetts---is in the Performance Place, an upstairs hall at the old Elizabeth Peabody House. It has no scenic facilities at all. New Broadway is the latest in a succession of brave little semipro companies that have tried to produce innovative theatre in this difficult space.

In fact, Shakespeare plays pretty well under Performance Place conditions. W.S. the wordsmith depends on his ornate language to sketch in military-political background and supply the atmosphere of a royal court. Blessing, on the other hand, is into minimalist dialogue and evocative physical effects -- "regal objects" that include Ophelia's dried- up bouquet, the Danish crown, the blood-stained tapestry arras behind which Polonius spied on Hamlet and was killed. How in the world can the New Broadway manage these effects, and supply the battlements and bedchambers and the Great Hall of the castle of Elsinore to provide ironic background for postmodern hijinks?

Awkwardly, that's how. The set and props combine comic-strip medieval design with a cumbersome execution that makes scene changes disastrous. There's nothing like watching an actor whose main job is playing a ghost stumble around interminably in the semi-dark wrestling furniture into place to strain one's credulity and patience--- although the company does pull off the technically astonishing Hamlet-in-the-TV set trick beautifully -- congratulations to an uncredited but brilliant techie.

There's nothing wrong with "Fortinbras", really. Under more propitious circumstances,--as a graduate student project in some well-equipped university, for instance-- this same cast could have a hit on their hands. Plenty of matter-- stylistic, social, sexual, -- for young people to sink their teeth into: plenty of sight gags to please the perennial groundlings. Even so, what seems to be the most important thematic stuff in "Fortinbras", what engages the author most deeply, has to do with story-telling and truth-telling, and the relationship between them. What effect does the telling have on "reality" and "history", and how is "Fortinbras", like "Hamlet-the Play" itself, an instance of this effect? This theme also figures in at least two other plays in Patient A, the collection of Blessing plays where "Fortinbras" appears. But no serious theme has much of a chance in an atmosphere that is closer to that of The Reduced Shakespeare Company's vaudeville sketches than to the revisionist impulses of Paula Vogel or Anne-Marie MacDonald -- not to mention the genre's shining exemplum, Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead".