by Lynn on March 2, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

At Hart House Theatre, Toronto. Written by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Directed by Carly Chamberlain. Designed by Scott Penner. Lighting by Andre de Toit. Choreography by Ashleigh Powell. Starring: Nathan Bitton, Cydney Penner, Nicholas Porteous, Katie Ridout, Lesley Robertson.

Plays at Hart House Theatre until March 8.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is Ann-Marie MacDonald’s dazzlingly witty, hugely inventive love-letter to Shakespeare, feminism, scholarship, dogged sleuthing and the triumph of the underdog. Director Carly Chamberlain and her grand cast have created a production that goes like the wind; realizes every joke and then some; winks at the audience and tweaks its cheeks and sends them out into the night, smiling.

Constance Ledbelly is an overworked, underappreciated assistant professor who is so in love with her boss, Professor Claude Night, that she writes his papers and speeches for him in hopes he will give her some attention. He doesn’t and goes off with a smarmy student named Ramona, instead. In formal literary parlance, Claude Night is a scumbag. Constance is also working on her PhD thesis, trying to decipher an obscure manuscript and prove that Shakespeare plundered this for ideas for Romeo and Juliet and Othello. As Constance muses about the worlds of these two plays, she postulates that the deaths of all three characters was easily avoidable. It’s when she is musing, what if someone interfered and prevented the catastrophes from happening, that she is sucked down the rabbit hole of imagination (well, really down into the garbage can etc.) and into the worlds of the play.

At first she is mortified but then empowered. This mousy woman finds her ringing voice as she blithely takes Desdemona’s missing handkerchief from out of the back of Iago’s tights (where he hid it) and gives it to Othello, thus proving Desdemona was true to him.

With Romeo and Juliet Constance stops them killing themselves and turns the tide of that play as well. Because Constance is in tights and she looks seemingly as a man, mistaken identity results. Desdemona, Juliet AND Romeo are smitten with her; all professing attraction. Constance, ever polite, tries to dissuade each suitor with gentle understanding. Sometimes it’s hard if a sword is involved.

All the while, Constance is trying to find the source of the original stories of the two plays and who actually wrote them. And in a way she is trying to find her own voice too, so she can finally be ‘heard.’

MacDonald packs the play with plays on words (‘foolscap’—the long paper—and then ‘fool’s cap’ a kind of hat, which Constance realizes is her own odd headgear) Later when she feels she is no closer to her goal she sighs ‘alas’ and another character says ‘a lass’ while he looks at her,  which Constance realizes is herself, and that perhaps she is the source of new information.

Of course MacDonald’s razor sharp mind is in every twist and tern in the layered story, and in every double, triple and even quadruple entendre. The story of the play is devilishly clever and you can tell she must have had a blast writing it.  The audience shouldn’t worry if it doesn’t get a joke. Ten more are whizzing across the stage and into the audience.

Director Carly Chamberlaine is true to the playwright by digging deep and being true to the substance and intent of the play, and adds her own dash of humour as well. In the first scene the Chorus gives his preamble and stubs out his cigarette. But rather do it as MacDonald has in her play, by stubbing it out on the floor, Chamberlaine has him doing it by stubbing it out on top of a skull on Constance’s desk. The skull provides more humour latter, when there is a reference to the Court Jester in Hamlet’s day named Yorick. A foggy voice calls out to Constance, “No you’re it!”

Chamberlaine keeps the pace and energy up so that at times watching all the racing around between characters, we are breathless. Constance too is dazzling by the comings and goings but embraces it all because she is in her element.

As Constance Lesley Robertson is harried but accommodating; always cheerful but with effort when dealing with the scumbag Claude (Clod?) Night. Hopeful, anticipating something positive and not getting it. She is ready to pack it in when she is sucked into the worlds of the plays and here Robertson injects life, optimism, joy if not euphoria into Constance’s whole existence. In a way Constance rises to the level of confidence of both Juliet and Desdemona—two women who turn out not to be what Constance expected. Robertson makes Constance endearing.  It’s a lovely performance.

As Desdemona, the snarky Ramona, Mercutio and a servant, Cydney Penner has attitude and a confident swagger for days. Nicholas Bitton is wiry and leering as Romeo when he sees Constance dressed as a man; sneaky when he’s playing Iago and fiery when playing Mercutio.

As Claude Night, Nicholas Porteous has that unctuous condescension of a smug prig who uses people for his own gain. He also plays Othello with a forcefulness, Tybolt with a short fuse and the Nurse with flare.

As Juliet, Katie Ribout has her keen sights on the disguised Constance, not knowing she’s a woman. This is no demure pushover. This is a commanding woman who knows what she wants and how to get it.

If you want a grand night in the theatre seeing a dazzling play being given a wonderful production, this is how you get it. You go to Hart House Theatre by March 9.

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