With this comedic riff on Hamlet, the production's strength is in the acting
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Jan. 14, 2011
City Theatre, 3823-D Airport, 474-8497
Through Jan. 29
Running time: 2 hr., 35 min.
Imagine a theory of everything. An idea that encompasses everything we see happening on both a cosmic and molecular level. The truth of what lies behind all things. The reason for being. That's what Felix Humble, a student of theoretical astrophysics, wants to find, so he leaves his home to study until, seven years later, the death of his father brings him home.
That's the jumping-off point for Charlotte Jones' family comedy, a play obviously inspired by Hamlet, with a climactic fencing scene (albeit without foils) and actual lines from Shakespeare's play. And the tragic plot, of course, with Felix's mother "married" to a man that her son despises, a love interest whose father disapproves of Felix, a ghost, and a truly dotty female Polonius. But while you'll find the structure of Shakespeare's tragedy here, you won't find tragedy. Jones' approach to the story is almost entirely comedic. For Jones, unlike Shakespeare, life is great fun even when somebody ends up dead.
As with so many live theatre productions in the Austin area, the great strength of Different Stages' production can be found in the acting. Jones requires Felix to stutter on and off – his stutter incites the action of the play, when he cannot speak at his father's funeral and runs away – and Tom Stephan works Felix's stutter so that Jones' lines never get lost. Stephan also transitions easily and believably between stuttering and speaking normally, and he sometimes even manages to channel a bit of that most famous prince. Norman Blumensaadt brings a gentle, fascinated, knowing vulnerability to the role of the gardener, Felix's friend and protector, making the scientific names of plants sound like great poetry. Suzanne Balling knows what she wants and goes after it as Jones' Ophelia, Rosie. Jennifer Underwood does exactly what you would expect her to do: deliver a perfect diva gravitas in the role of Flora, Felix's mother. And Susan Roberts as Mercy Lott, Flora's well-meaning but scattered sidekick, has a scene in which she makes a startling discovery and must do a few dozen or so things to cover it up. Roberts' doing of these things results in moments of comic brilliance.
While the acting is the great strength of the production, it's also one of its weaknesses. Jones has written a funny and, in many ways, lovely story, but the actors didn't always play this strong material well on opening night. Lines seemed to get lost, especially in the second act, and the tempo flagged on more than one occasion. Director Jonathan Urso's staging sometimes wasn't helpful, as the actors seemed disconnected from one another at times when they should have been connected. This seeming disconnection could have been a lack of rehearsal or an actor simply not knowing the lines well enough. Or it could have been first-night jitters. In any case, the show will most certainly get tighter. When you assemble talented actors and pair them with an effective comedic rendering of the greatest story of all time, then mix in theoretical astrophysics and a hive of lively bees, something sweet is certain to occur.