The Play's the Thing

Bethany Larsen's Maybe He's Just Not That Into You and Nick Moore and Susannah Pearse's Decisive highlight a group of six, 10-minute plays produced by the Milk Can Theater Company and collectively called The Hamlet Plays. Half of the short pieces are set in the modern day and are about actors talking about acting, while the other three present conversations among characters from the play. In Larsen's chick-lit toned piece, Ophelia laments the demise of her relationship with Hamlet to Ibsen's Nora and Oscar Wilde's Salome. Both women are headstrong and self-confident, and they console Ophelia as though they were the supporting cast on Sex and the City. Tongue placed firmly in cheek, Larsen writes self-conscious characters who know they are characters and who can talk about life after the final curtain call. Nora is collecting alimony from Torvald, and Salome is a hit at her belly-dancing class. These women are engaged in a purely fictional process of feminist-lite literary revision, remaking the story into "her-story." Thanks to Larsen's deft use of modern pop-psych dialogue, it's a fun process to watch.

Three members of the Post-Hamlet Support Group welcome Alex, a surfer dude with treacherous motives, in Decisive, a crowd-pleasing musical that plays the Prince of Denmark's tragic flaw for comic effect. Rachel (Jennifer Stackpole), Joe (Reza Jacobs), and Richard (Jared Dembowski) are actors who cannot cope with life after Hamlet. Each has acted the lead role (Rachel was in an all-female version of the play) and meet to reminisce about the good old days. When Alex arrives, they regard him snobbily but come around after he presses them to relive the moment they found out they were cast.

We soon learn that Alex hasn't actually played Hamlet but has been turned down for the parts that were offered to Joe and Rachel; his father was denied Richard's role in London in 1964. After his father's ghost visits him, Hamlet is famously indecisive. His inability to take action against his Uncle Claudius is fueled by his thoroughly modern self-obsession and soliloquizing introspection. And so Alex's decision to seek out and ultimately destroy these former competitors, which results from his decisive and direct nature, gets at why he probably wasn't right for the part in the first place.

Larsen, Moore, and Pearse make good theater because they mine the textual and thematic treasure chest of the Bard's best-loved play. They successfully communicate interesting stories in a short amount of time by giving us characters whose sense of self is either fueled by or in comical opposition to those selves we find in Shakespeare's text.

The Lamp's Lit attempts to show us scenes that Shakespeare didn't, and while adding to what most people regard as a pretty decent play is a bit presumptuous, it does manage to present a sympathetic portrait of the traitorous queen. Roya Shanks gives one of the show's best performances as Gertrude, pacing about the royal chamber, awaiting her son's return. TJ Morton is a disappointingly stiff Ghost who elicits his wife's help to kill Claudius; casting an actor who at least looks like a grave, wronged king might have helped.

Cheryl Davis's dialogue is at its best when Gertrude has to respond to both the Ghost and her impatient husband, Claudius, who wants her to come back to bed. The piece is ultimately not as finely conceived as Maybe or Decisive, but it does go out on an intellectually stimulating limb.

I found the other three pieces—The Player King Musical, Baloney, and The Match—boring and hardly worth mentioning. None of them offered characters worth caring about, which is saying a lot when their approximate run time is only 10 minutes each. The Player King Musical is a clichéd meet-and-mate, and Baloney is a poor attempt at philosophy, choked by obvious metaphors. Better actors could squeeze some value out of The Match, about longtime friends competing for the lead role as you know who, but as is, it's flatfooted and melodramatic.

None of the plays were made better by Michel Ostaszewki's distractingly colorful backdrop. The versatile scaffolding worked well and should have been paired with a simple black background that would have made the small space seem less cluttered.

At the end of the show, audiences were encouraged to vote for The Hamlet Plays in the Innovative Theater Awards's online balloting. In this case, it's too bad we can't select the show's individual plays for these Off-Off-Broadway awards. When the pieces are grouped together this way, the bad ones distract too much from the good.

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