Good night sweet prince, indeed.
Elsinore Castle has a new king. He’s decisive, doesn’t need the truth and likes biker leather and leopard skin.
His name is Fortinbras, and he’s the title character in a contemporary send-up of life in rotten ol’ Denmark opening tonight at Cascades Theatrical Company (see “If You Go”).
In case you missed the references, we’re talking about Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which is the backstory to “Fortinbras.” And in case you’ve forgot this storied tale of woe, let’s get you up to speed.
In the 17th century, Shakespeare pens the play “Hamlet.” Its protagonist is Prince Hamlet, a lovable but painfully indecisive guy with serious family issues. He returns from college to learn his father’s been knocked off by his uncle Claudius, a dastardly knave who’s also usurped the throne of Denmark and married Hamlet’s mom.
Noticeably upset, Hamlet conspires against his mother and his stepfather/uncle. But the poor chap can’t go through with it (Has he gone mad?). Instead, he mistakenly kills Polonius, the king’s adviser who is also the father of Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia, who promptly does go mad and may or may not commit suicide.
Hamlet then unwittingly kills Ophelia’s brother Laertes in a duel, sustains a mortal wound in the same sword fight, watches his mother keel over after drinking from a poisoned chalice meant for him, and in a fit of excusable pique, slays his uncle. Finally — in the fourth hour of the play.
But, alas, Hamlet’s belabored demise is not over yet. In the very last scene of the play, in walks Fortinbras — prince of Norway — to find the almost expired Hamlet, who bids Fortinbras to put things right.
Good luck, sweet prince. If only it were that easy.
Herein lies the fun of “Fortinbras.” It picks up from that last scene (the role of Fortinbras is so trivial it is often omitted in stage and film adaptions of “Hamlet”) and imagines life in a castle only the Ghostbusters could love.
Fortinbras has some grand ideas for his kingship and gets right to work. He brushes aside the sticky story about Hamlet and dreams up an imaginary enemy in Poland to legitimize his reign. Trouble is, the former occupants are having a haunting good time thwarting his every move. And wouldn’t you know it, even in the afterlife they’re all still squabbling.
You don’t have to know “Hamlet” to enjoy “Fortinbras”; enough of the play is ingrained in popular culture to make its jokes bite. But for fans of the Bard, “Fortinbras” is wicked satire.
Hamlet gets most of the ribbing. So, too, do Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes and Polonius, who in this play is mute and always playing with a hole in a certain infamous curtain — the one Hamlet stabbed him through in the original play — draped around his neck like an albatross.
Nor does Ophelia escape unscathed. Her famous bout of dementia is referred to as her “unfortunate period” and she floats around Elsinore with a bouquet of dead flowers. She’s also got some metaphysical tricks up her sleeve, including the ability to seduce Fortinbras.
Poor Hamlet. He was made to suffer.
Also present are Osric and Horatio, two minor characters in “Hamlet.” In “Fortinbras,” they are major players, the foils for King Fortinbras and the ghost of Hamlet, respectively. Osric is an apologist and a yes man; Horatio is committed to exonerating his fallen lord.
The play — written by American playwright Lee Blessing — also has an absurdist angle. Philosophy is poked fun of, as are ethics and the relevance of truth.
Some of the humor is also generally absurd. For a portion of the play, Hamlet’s spirit is trapped inside a television set, or “light box” as Horatio calls it. The theater pulls off the audio/video trick with a closed circuit camera set up backstage.
In fact, audio/video tricks are featured throughout the production. Ophelia has fun tormenting Hamlet with the mute button on the TV’s remote, and snippets of audio by historical figures (including Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and G.W. Bush) are played over scene changes to reinforce plot points.
The production — directed by local stage veteran Kymberlie Colbourne — also has fun with its costumes. When Fortinbras first enters, he’s in biker leather. Later, he’s redone the king’s chambers with leopard skin sheets and wears the pajamas to match. Osric wears a sweater and bow-tie, but Horatio’s fashion sense is decidedly medieval. And how about Fortinbras’ two Polish concubines, dressed as cheerleaders?
“Fortinbras” is irreverent and deadpan, a thoughtful comedy lean on slapstick and devoid of audience participation gags.
“How many people walk through the door,” says Fortinbras in one scene, “and boom! They’re king!”
The play stars Caleb Neet as Fortinbras, Aaron Carper as Hamlet, Jared Rasic as Osric, Jon D. Plueard as Horatio, Jocelyn Smith as Ophelia, Mandy Rockwell as Gertrude and Joe Sershen as Claudius. A number of supporting roles fill out the production.