Review: Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) (Hart House Theatre)

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Classic Shakespearean tragedies receive a clever and humorous spin at Toronto’s Hart House Theatre

I was eighteen when I first read Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ode to Shakespeare—Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). I recall being struck by its humour and cleverness. The play has stayed with me ever since, though I had not seen it performed until now. Having just seen Hart House Theatre’s exceptional production, my appreciation of the play has grown significantly. It’s not just funny and clever; neither of those two words do justice to the sheer brilliance of MacDonald’s award-winning comedy.

I’m compelled to gush uncontrollably, so know that it requires tremendous restraint on my part to handle this review in a professional and dignified manner, but before I can do so, I must first give voice to my enthusiasm: This play is awesomeness incarnate! The premise is both fanciful and fiercely intelligent, the characters are captivating, and the dialogue is so delicious I wish my life were written by Ann-Marie MacDonald!

This play might be most appreciated by those familiar with Shakespeare—specifically, Othello and Romeo and Juliet—and not just the plots, but the whole Elizabethan mode of theatrical presentation. Generally, I think esoteric art is inherently elitist and I have some issues with that. MacDonald’s play, however, is meant to be accessible to the masses (like Shakespeare’s), but so much of its humour and insight are dependent on familiarity with—and enthusiasm for—the source material.

The story concerns a whimsical academic, Constance, who believes that Shakespeare’s Othello and Romeo and Juliet were intended to be comedies—they are structured so, yet missing the Wise Fool to set everything right. Disappointed with love and career, she flings her thesis (along with a number of personal affects) into a wastebasket. She is then transported into the classic plays and begins her wild journey to play the Fool, enable comic circumstances to prevail over tragic and, in the process, discover her true value and purpose.

The nitty-gritty specifics of the story make constant reference to key plot points of Othello and Romeo and Juliet; I won’t waste too much time delving into those. Suffice it to say that both of those classic stories end in death because of misunderstandings and bad timing. By revealing crucial information at just the right time, Constance sets the action on a whole new course, allowing Desdemona and Juliet to break free from their restrictive roles as fate’s victims and allow their personalities to flourish.

Director Carly Chamberlain keeps the momentum up with kinetic force, ensuring there’s never a wasted moment. The blocking is always dynamic, as are the performances—which are suitably melodramatic. As my date for the evening (a theatre-school graduate) pointed out, there is a certain dramatic license afforded to actors here: they are not playing these classic characters as they would in their original context. They are not really Othello, Romeo and Juliet—the people, but rather: characters in a play. It’s an abstract distinction, and I point it out because the entire play, conceptually, hinges on such abstractions.

As Constance, Lesley Robertson is so endearing! She has a wide-eyed, shuffling, slightly awkward presence that could easily come off as naïveté, but Robertson uses that energy to portray a playful intelligence. The rest of the cast (Nathan Bitton, Cydney Penner, Nicholas Porteous and Katie Ribout), playing multiple roles, maintain the goofy and charming atmosphere.

The stagecraft is likewise impressive. The plot involves some fantastical occurrences, such as Constance being transported from the naturalistic modern-day setting to the theatrical world of Shakespeare and back again. These sequences are handled simply, but with such style—a thrilling blend of light, sound and movement.

Scott Penner’s set design is thoughtful and elegant. A darkened Elizabethan stage looms in the background, representing the world of theatre where crafted dramas play out. In the foreground, is a cold and functional office, where real life dramas unfold. Both of these exist in harmony, representing Constance’s sub-conscious and academic realities held in perfect balance.

Hart House has a winner here: riotous, insightful, and genuinely empowering, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is one wacky trip!

Details:

  • Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is playing at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until March 8.
  • Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8PM, with a Saturday Matinee at 2PM
  • Tickets prices are as follow: $28 (Adults), $17 (Seniors), and $15 (Students), $10 Student tickets on Wednesdays / $17 Alumni tickets on Thursdays.
  • Tickets can be purchased through the Box Office in person, by phone (416-978-8849), or online at www.uofttix.ca

Photo of Cydney Penner, Nathan Bitton and Lesley Robertson by Scott Gorman

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