'Hamlet,' Continued - And With A New Spin

Review

Academy's Masqueraders Display A Flair For Comedy With 'Fortinbras'

November 22, 2009|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The Naval Academy's Mahan Hall rocked with laughter last weekend as the midshipmen of the Masqueraders displayed their comedic mastery in Lee Blessing's "Fortinbras."

This 1991 political satire, which ran for two weekends, picks up where Shakespeare's "Hamlet" leaves off. The play opens with the mortally wounded Hamlet willing his kingdom to the prince Fortinbras and commanding his friend Horatio to relate his story to the world.

Soon after Hamlet dies, Fortinbras arrives to find several expired royals lying about in need of disposal. And he finds Horatio's story of what has happened preposterous. Thus Shakespeare's greatest drama becomes high comedy. Tragedy gives way to parody, and the bard's psychological astuteness provides an inexhaustible trove of quirks and flaws to mine.

Describing it as "the funniest play I've ever worked on," associate professor of English and Masqueraders director Christy Stanlake says, " 'Fortinbras' mixes the world of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' with a Monty Python-style of humor. ... Fearful that the public will not believe the true story, Fortinbras leads a publicity blitz to explain his rise to power. With his cover-up gone awry and royal ghosts haunting him to tell the truth, the young leader learns that it is not always good to be king."

A man of action, Fortinbras has the bodies removed and the strange story of their demise reworked. Already charged with spreading Hamlet's truth, honest Horatio is a strange choice for Fortinbras' public relations man, and must be persuaded to turn the truth into something more believable.

After Fortinbras concocts a story inventing a Polish spy as the culprit who wiped out the royal family, he enlists the help of Osric, a minor "Hamlet" character whom King Claudius commanded to referee Hamlet's duel with Laertes. An amoral political survivor, Osric instantly blossoms as Fortinbras' spin doctor, and seems at home in any era.

As Fortinbras attempts to lead, his army has problems, and inside the castle the royal ghosts emerge. The repentant King Claudius, Queen Gertrude and Ophelia return to advise Fortinbras. The king and queen pray a lot. Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes, was garrulous in his earthly days but has now vowed silence.

Hamlet, who is trapped inside a portable TV where he often appears as a giant moving eye, discovers that his former chaste love Ophelia has turned lustful and often vengeful as she controls the TV remote.

Ophelia's brother Laertes may be so dense that he doesn't realize he's dead.

Fortinbras wants to ally Denmark with Norway to become Normark or Denway. He pursues a pair of Polish maidens when he is not bedding Ophelia, who has convinced him that a woman reaches her sexual peak only at death. Apparently the same is true of Hamlet, who after he bursts out of the TV box speedily consummates his relationship with Ophelia.

With "Fortinbras," Stanlake has brought her actors a unique gift. The play blends the brilliance of timeless Shakespeare with Blessing's modern wit to create a politically relevant story where the audience might recognize a Fortinbras-like leader more inclined to act before considering all the ramifications and a Hamlet-like leader who might weigh every aspect of a problem before reaching a decision.

The Masqueraders cast is uniformly excellent. At the top is sophomore Mike DiDonato as Fortinbras, resplendent in a red leather jumpsuit, projecting surprise at his good fortune at becoming Denmark's ruler before setting out to revise history and consolidate his authority. Adept at comic timing, DiDonato swings from cocky assuredness to abject befuddlement. His Fortinbras is a man of action who conveys his impatience with deliberation, preferring to find his own truth.

After the performance, DiDonato said he enjoyed "living his character's emotions. The story is incredibly fictitious, but the emotions are real and help me connect, which is a great skill for becoming an officer."

In the role of Osric, Mark Pfender proved an adroit comedian, capable of bringing the audience to hysterics by his sparkling presence, enhanced by the over-the-top attire that he makes part of his upward mobility. Osric's acquiescence to his own hanging relieves him from further pandering, and he finally speaks his mind.

Senior Sierra Cox obviously enjoyed playing the lusty Ophelia, leaping on Fortinbras and Hamlet, delighting in bending them to her will.

After her performance, Cox said, "It's a blast to perform this hilarious spin on Shakespeare's classic, and it has received a good following from the midshipmen."

Kyle Hanton's and Michael McPherson's superb fight choreography and fencing were brilliantly executed by a cast that redefined fitness standards. Outstanding performances were given by Benjamin Ball as Hamlet, Ryan Mati as Horatio and Kevin Williams as Polonius.

Junior Margaret Gates-George, who played Maiden Gita, also served as producer.

"This entire experience has been a wonderful way to utilize military training in an extremely nontraditional way," she said after the performance. "I wouldn't trade a semester with the Masqueraders for anything else the Navy has to offer."

For the seventh Masqueraders production, Richard Montgomery brought his expertise in set and costume design to enhance the total theater experience.

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