Directed by Lisa Peterson
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“There is no play and you know it.” – Michael to Anna
‘Clever’ morphs to ‘profound’ as film noire narration counterpoints with spoken word and played scenes, in Michael Laurence’s “Hamlet in Bed” a play within a play within a play. Playwright Michael Laurence constructs a fascinating and engaging retelling of the “Queen’s closet scene” in “Hamlet” (Act III, Scene 4) where Hamlet confronts his mother about her infidelity and her complicity in the murder of his father. Mr. Laurence’s premise is shared with the audience early on: “An actor and an actress perform a play./(It’s a play within a play.)/The actor and the actress may or may not be mother and son,/and they may or may not know it./You know the play, the play is Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Yes, ‘that’ mother and son.”
The protagonist of the new play – Michael (Michael Laurence) – was abandoned by his mother at birth and he has longed to find her all of his life – and believes he has in the person of Anna (Annette O’Toole). After purchasing a diary from Cy the book peddler, Michael reads it carefully and believes the actress who wrote the diary could in fact be his mother. How to find out if Anna is his mother? Asking her directly would result in her protesting too much, so instead he recreates Hamlet’s “mousetrap” to – in this case – catch the conscience of the Queen (played by Anna) and hope she will – under pressure – come clean.
Both Michael and Anna were abused – Michael by his adoptive father Professor Joe. Both have subtle and not-so-subtle connections to the Shakespeare characters they have agreed (it is, in fact, a contract!) to play. Like Hamlet, Michael is enigmatic, philosophical, contemplative, melancholy, depressed, and truly mad. And like Gertrude, Anna is sexual, has an aversion to the truth, dependent, spiritually conflicted, and guilt-ridden. Mr. Laurence and Ms. O’Toole embody these characterizations with incredible craft. Mr. Laurence fits well into the melancholic skin of both Hamlet and Michael – both with mega-mother issues. Ms. O’Toole riddles her dual characters with conflicted guilt and seductive disingenuous charm.
The conceit is brilliant and the execution by the actors under Lisa Peterson’s direction is equally brilliant and equally engaging. Both actors move – glide actually – in and out of narration, monologues, and engaging scenes in and out of “Hamlet’s bed.” This is a complicated and deeply rich script that lingers with the audience long after the curtain call providing many “Aha” and “Wait, now I think I get it” moments. Rachel Hauck’s scenic design is sparse leaving much to the imagination of the audience to determine the setting. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are simple, appropriate, and complimented exquisitely by Scott Zielinski’s mood-driven lighting which – like the set – teases the audience into star-studded wonderment.
Throughout “Hamlet in Bed,” Michael assumes Anna knows that he is her son and she is aware of the “conspiracy of the play.” The audience is drawn into this matrix of mental gymnastics and will enjoy every shift in the unraveling of the plot and every rebaiting of the mousetrap. Who sets the trap and who is the prey? “Hamlet in Bed” is so well written, the audience will need to be attentive to the layers of subterfuge and the rich allusions and re-tellings of “Hamlet.” When, for example, Michael decides to visit a sex worker “uptown” he refers to the business as a “nunnery” and when Anna auditions for Michael, she read’s Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death, the role she played with Michael’s presumed father (who played Hamlet) in the 1970s. Stay alert, be amazed, be dazzled!