Gunning for Hamlet

Mercy Thieves takes its title from a line in Hamlet describing a ship of pirates as “thieves of mercy,” an apt evocation of the brutal main characters, but this play owes more to Quentin Tarantino than to Shakespeare. The characters are ostensibly derived from Hamlet but what purpose this serves the story or the character development is unclear; one gets the feeling that the author has sought to lodge a weak plot in a canonic framework. Nevertheless, thanks to very strong performances and well-written dialogue, this gangster comedy achieves moments of high art and entertainment. We are introduced to the characters as we enter the theater: on the low-lit, curtainless stage the two players sit side by side, accompanied by a pair of legs stretched out on the floor from behind a bar. This pre-scene doesn’t do much to inform the plot, but the two main actors’ postures and attitudes already begin to establish their characters: Nick Stevenson as the smoldering DJ and Jeremy Waters as the ecstatic Mike. Both will be superb in their renderings of idiosyncratic hit men.

What structure there is in the plot is hopskotch: one step forward, two hops back fill us in on preceding stages in the story which, if played out chronologically, would reveal how empty the storyline is. The play traces one night in the lives of Mike and DJ, two hired thugs who have been given a mission: to find Harry. Harry proves to be elusive (he never actually appears onstage), and the two set off on a journey across Australia, unearthing and killing off their old friends and colleagues in their search. What Mercy Thieves really amounts to is a series of character sketches expressed through high and low-tech media and prop manipulations: from the large video screen backdrop where certain scenes unfold cinematically, to flashlight-driven chase numbers.

Director Craig Baldwin has done some interesting work in creating context for the frequent time and media shifts and in his efforts to convey violence and action on a small stage using simple means. Unfortunately, the overall effect is inconsistent and awkward. There are several car scenes that feature DJ driving a floating steering wheel while Mike fiddles with the radio dial or philosophizes. The two are seated in chairs behind an overturned table as the car. The effect is of two vaudevillians in a Model-T - not exactly noir. There is more vaudeville to come when Mike and DJ mime killing techniques; maybe this is a cool concept and it’s just poor miming, but the result is embarrassing.

Where the manipulation of time and context works, it works beautifully. The finest scene in the play is between Harry’s mother, Pru (brilliantly played by Victoria Roberts), DJ and Mike. DJ recalls his visit with Pru to Mike, as it actually unfolds. Mike asks questions from the future and, from the past—from her chair upstage—Pru rolls her eyes at Mike or gives him a cool stare. This simple treatment of gazes and stage positions succeeds where the props and screens collapse into gimmickry.

Throughout the play the level of performance is outstanding. Nico Evers-Swindell is excellent as he shifts between three characters; his Jimbo is one of the highlights of the play. Emma Jackson does a juicy “Sharon the Tart” and Paul Swinnerton is a perfect pub man, among other characters. Jeremy Waters dominates the stage with his explosive yet affable, murderous yet sensitive rendering of tender, homicidal Mike. Mercy Thieves may be on its way to Hollywood (the screenplay has been optioned), but it’s hard to imagine anyone but Mr. Waters in this role. The same could be said of the entire cast.

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