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STAGE REVIEW : La Jolla ‘Fortinbras’ Played for Laughs

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

If you haven’t read “Hamlet” lately, brush up your Shakespeare. Read it before you see Lee Blessing’s “Fortinbras,” the inaugural production at the gorgeous new Mandell Weiss Forum of the La Jolla Playhouse. It’ll help with the jokes.

Jokes? “Hamlet”? You bet.

Blessing’s new play begins where “Hamlet” leaves off. It’s a comedy that was waiting to be written and, if you know your “Hamlet,” the jokes come fast and furious. Well, the variations on the joke. It’s a one-gag play that keeps you laughing at a pretty good clip, but that does wear a bit thin at two hours with an intermission. Ninety minutes without one would serve the material better. But, hey, next to Broadway’s now-closed “I Hate Hamlet,” a clunky Danish Prince concoction, this is caviar souffle.

“Fortinbras” has genuine humor, if not quite all the topical undercurrents its author would like. Not important. This comedy serves up a yuppie, postmodern Fortinbras, a bewildered Horatio, a blossoming Osric and lots of tasty ghosts. Who needs the politics?

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We know where we are from the start, as Hamlet dies when the lights go up and Fortinbras (a hip Daniel Jenkins) rushes in where flocks of angels fear to tread.

“What’s all this ?” is his official reaction to the bodies. And no one is more tickled than he by news of the royal succession. “How many people walk in the door,” says he, “and, boom, they’re king?”

You catch the drift. In this “new perspective” Denmark, the foils used by Laertes and Hamlet become bedroom “decor.” So does the “arras” behind which Polonius hid when Hamlet ran him through (what’s one teeny hole in the tapestry?). The problem now is what to tell the Danish people.

The truth, says stick-in-the-mud Horatio (a Ralph Bruneau who seems as discomfited as the character he plays). Nonsense, replies Fortinbras. Who’s gonna believe that the entire Danish royal family bumped itself off?

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So Fortinbras makes up what he considers a better truth about a Polish spy being the cause of the disasters. That unleashes the need to pretend to invade Poland, which gets out of hand when the army, by mistake, really invades Poland and sets off a domino effect of unstoppable victories. . . .

So much for foreign policy.

The domestic front is a lot livelier, even if it rests heavily on the dead: those dependable Elsinore ghosts, dressed in creamy off-white by Susan Hilferty, who show up in force to run interference.

They have all suffered personality changes. Polonius (William Cain) can hardly talk; Ophelia (Laura Linney) won’t shut up; Laertes (Josh Sebers) is a wimp; Claudius and Gertrude feel awful because they’re guilty and Fortinbras, who has had them buried in hallowed ground, won’t dig them up; and Hamlet is trapped in a television set. “Swear,” he orders Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo, “Swear you won’t touch this (on-off) button!” But watch Ophelia find mute on the remote control.

Kingship is just not all it’s cracked up to be. Fortinbras is seduced by Ophelia (an aggressive Vampira), forced to marry a Polish woman, importuned by Horatio, annoyed that he can’t stop his armies, bedeviled by his ghosts and driven to soliloquizing (“Something about this castle makes me want to talk to myself”).

There are enough of these inside jokes and one-liners to offset a smaller share of wispy ones, but Blessing’s most fortuitous idea was to boost Osric to center stage. Played with deadpan restraint and a tentative air of perpetual surprise by the nimble Jefferson Mays, Osric becomes the play’s delicious second banana--alive or dead.

Robert Brill has designed a simple Gothic set in gray tones that, under Chris Parry’s playful lights, eloquently displays the scope and flexibility of the Forum’s spacious thrust stage. Michael Roth has composed exotic incidental music that nicely demonstrates the sound equipment. But, plus or minus, the play’s still the thing.

Recognizing that “Fortinbras” is breezy, breakable stuff, Des McAnuff has had restrained fun with the staging, letting the running gag speak for itself and not burdening it with too much outlandish business. It’s good work, well supported by a capable cast.

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With the right trimming and tightening, “Fortinbras” could have a happy life as a swell repertory companion to “Hamlet.”

‘Fortinbras’

Don Reilly: Hamlet

Jefferson Mays: Osric

Ralph Bruneau: Horatio

Daniel Jenkins: Fortinbras

Paul Gutrecht: Captain

James Crawford: Marcellus

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James Kiernan: Barnardo

Archer Martin, Kim C. Walsh: Polish maidens

William Cain: Polonius/British Ambassador

Laura Linney: Ophelia

Jonathan Frieman: Claudius

Devon Allen: Gertrude

Josh Sebers: Laertes

A new comedy by Lee Blessing presented by the La Jolla Playhouse. Director Des McAnuff. Sets Robert Brill. Lights Chris Parry. Costumes Susan Hilferty. Composer Michael Roth. Sound Kenneth Ted Bible, Michael Roth. Dramaturge Robert Blacker. Stage manager Andy Tighe.


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