July 8, 2008

‘Goodnight Desdemona’ is Funny, Vulgar and Thoughtful

By Barry Gaines For the Journal

I returned from my summer travels just in time to join a capacity opening-night audience for "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)" at the Vortex. This rollicking play by Canadian Ann-Marie MacDonald operates on several levels, all of them entertaining.

Before we hear a line of dialogue, we see mousey academic Constance Ledbelly at work at her cluttered desk while Othello smothers his innocent wife Desdemona and Juliet, finding her beloved Romeo dead, stabs herself to death.

We soon learn that Constance has been toiling to finish her doctoral dissertation. She hopes to prove that Shakespeare originally conceived both "Othello" and "Romeo and Juliet" as comedies with a Wise Fool intervening to avert the errors that lead to the plays' deaths.

Constance's pedantic comments on the "ambivalent and non- Aristotelian" tragedy of the two plays sounds like a classroom lecture on Shakespeare, or a parody of such a lecture -- they are often difficult to tell apart.

When her secret love, Professor Claude Knight, for whom she has been writing speeches and reviews for years, callously dashes all her romantic hopes, she throws her research into the wastebasket -- and herself with it. Fantastically, she reappears in Cyprus where she interacts with Othello, Desdemona and Iago.

In the second act she is in Verona with the Capulets and Montagues. In both places Constance manages to avert the tragedy, but she turns the action into chaos -- therein lies much of the fun.

MacDonald's script is alternatively witty and vulgar; the play's cast transforms what is essentially an extended skit into an enjoyable comedy.

Director Victoria Liberatori, artistic director and co-founder of Princeton Rep Company, has selected her actors well and provided clever staging and line deliveries to maximize the play's comic effect.

The cast presents their characters with appealing energy and commitment. Shakespeare veterans Drew Groves and Lori Stewart call on their experience to be both serious and silly -- often simultaneously -- as Romeo/Iago and Desdemona. Benjamin Liberman sends Othello, Juliet's Nurse and Tybalt over the top in his performances. Heather Yeo is delightful as a Juliet who was dissatisfied with her Romeo's amorous equipage.

Bridget Kelly is strong as Constance, whose search for identity is at the heart of the play. Kelly often underplays her modern role, milking the humorous contrast between her colloquial language and the other characters' emotional Renaissance verse (although I swear I heard a Groucho Marx line).

Is "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)" fraught with the power of the Shakespearean plays in appropriates? No. It is more intellectual slapstick, but thoughtful and entertaining.

The few glitches in the first performance will be eliminated during the run. "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)" plays at the Vortex Theatre, 2004 Central SW, Fridays July 18 and Aug. 1, Saturdays July 12, 26 and Aug. 2 at 8 p.m., and Sundays July 13, 20 and Aug. 3 at 2 p.m. $12. Call 247-8600.

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