Until about midway through the play, William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, has all the trappings of a comedy: two feuding families; two young lovers who meet and marry in secret; their hot-blooded, sword-wielding cousins and buffoonish elders whose rivalry is sure to be o’erthrown by the fecund love between two representatives of the next generation of fair Verona.
But then wily old Will throws a curve into the proceedings: during a swordfight between the best duelists among the Montagues and Capulets, the lovestruck Romeo intervenes, enabling Tybalt to fatally wound Romeo’s sharp-tongued cousin, Mercutio, who musters enough breath to utter the curse, “A plague on both your houses,” before succumbing. Dazed and confused, Romeo picks up his cousin’s sword and, before he realizes what he is doing, manages to run it through his new in-law Tybalt, killing him.
Mistakes are compounded by misunderstandings and, by the play’s conclusion, the dead bodies have piled up and the proceedings end not with the marriage and wedding vows of traditional comedy but with the funerals of our star-crossed lovers and oaths of peace between the grief-struck families.
Shakespeare’s reversal of traditional comedy in Romeo and Juliet has been analyzed by countless literary critics, including the great Canadian theorist Northrop Frye, author of Anatomy of Criticism. But what if Romeo and Juliet was not meant to be a tragedy at all? What if a critical character, such as a court jester or fool, had been essentially air-brushed out of the play or if Shakespeare had ripped off and reworked a comedy by another author?
This is the curious premise of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, which is being performed by The Depot Theatre in Westport, NY, through this Sunday, September 19. The play, which has won numerous awards in Canada, where it was first produced in 1988, offers theatergoers a small dose of straight Shakespeare mixed with a madcap romp through Othello as well as Romeo and Juliet.
In a sense, Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet attempts to do to Shakespeare’s two tragedies what Romeo and Juliet originally did to traditional comedy. I’ll leave it up to audience members to decide whether Ms. MacDonald pulls it off; but you can rest assured that the cast and crew of The Depot’s production make the most of every comic opportunity the playwright presents to them.
A Wrecking-Ball by Any Other Name
Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet opens in the cramped work space of one Constance Ledbelly (played by Caroline Treadwell), a mousy PhD student who is writing her thesis on an obscure document that she believes will prove Shakespeare had prepared different endings for two of his most famous plays. Ledbelly hopes to prove that Romeo and Juliet and Othello were intended to be comedies As she delves further into her research, Ledbelly is given a magical opportunity to prove her thesis when she disappears into her wastebasket and enters a world where she comes face-to-face with Desdemona, Juliet, and their respective tragic peers.
The first part of the “fantasy” sequences transports us to Cyprus and the more primitive realm of Othello, where Constance is perceived as an all-knowing seer by the easily confounded Othello (Patrick Toon), the treacherous Iago (Marshall York), and the Amazon-like Desdemona (Sarah Hankins). Just as things begin to heat up among this distrusting trio, Constance is whisked away to Verona where the plot really thickens among Romeo (Mr. York), Juliet (Jenny Strassburg), and company. If you, like me, are less familiar with Othello than you are with Romeo and Juliet, hang on for the Verona scenes as playwright MacDonald takes a wrecking-ball approach to disassembling the darker elements of Shakespeare’s first great tragedy and lets the comedy run amok.
The Depot production is directed by John Christopher Jones, who has helmed 15 shows there over the years, including last year’s Round and Round the Garden. An accomplished actor who has performed in New York City on and off Broadway in such productions as Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Chekhov’s The Seagull, and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Mr. Jones was featured this season in The Depot’s previous show, The Drawer Boy.
Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet features a cast of four familiar faces and one newcomer. Westport native Treadwell, who was just seen at Ballard Park in American Studio Theatre’s Two Gentleman of Verona, has appeared in such Depot productions as The Memory of Water (2007), Italian-American Reconciliation (2008), and Round and Round the Garden and Almost, Maine (both in 2009). Mr. York, another veteran of Memory of Water and Round and Round, was first seen at The Depot in Off the Map, also directed by Mr. Jones. It’s been at least a couple of seasons since Ms. Strassburg appeared at The Depot—as Rachel in To Gillian, on Her 37th Birthday and as Audrey in Hank Williams: Lost Highway—while Mr. Toon is fresh off his Depot debut in The 39 Steps.
The newcomer is Sarah Hankins, who has actually played Desdemona and Juliet in Shakespeare’s plays and whose extensive regional credits include Shakespeare & Company, Charlotte Rep, and six seasons with the Orlando Shakespeare company.
Fred Balzac, a freelance writer who reports frequently on the arts, is a sometime theater artist who has been involved in various capacities with numerous North Country productions and theater companies, including The Depot. Tickets for “Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet” are $22 for all shows and all seats. The play contains some strong language and mature situations, so parental guidance is suggested. Reservations and information are available online at www.depottheatre.org or by calling The Depot box office at 518-962-4449.