Probing the depths of deep personal drama, intertwined with moments of guilty pleasure laughing at historic wrongs, Anne-Marie MacDonald’s mercurial Hamlet-911 is a brilliantly fascinating and often unnerving journey between overlapping perceptions of reality and fantasy.
Directed with precision and passion by Alisa Palmer, it is joyously delivered by a superb acting troupe relishing the task of delving into the complexities and seeming incongruities of the play’s wonderfully chaotic excursion into the world premiere of this thought-provoking work.
While clearly not a standard linear production, there is nonetheless a straightforward storyline for audiences to grasp. Loved by countless fans of his hit Vampire Dad TV series, leading man Guinness Menzies (Mike Shara) is set to play his dream role Hamlet at the Stratford Festival.
It’s a once-in-a lifetime role played by his father Rex (Scott Wentworth) – a founding member of the Festival – on numerous occasions, who has been chosen to play the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Meanwhile, Guinness’s real-life wife (Amelia Sargisson) will be his stage mother Gertrude because, due to misogynistic casting practices, his actual mother Jessica (Sarah Dodd) is “too old for the part”.
Unveiling numerous opportunities for a wealth of wonderfully illustrated scenes often associated with graphic novels and that tie in directly with today’s current life-altering obsession with virtual living online, the plot lays bare the macho-pomposity of Rex who rails against the Festival’s new face, “where women now play in a motley troupe of United Nations feel-goodery; where everything is unicorns and rainbows and hyphens and pronouns.”
Therein lies the perfect chance for the audience to squirm and wiggle uncomfortably in their collective seats as they chortle rather loudly to what they presumably realize are theatrical evils of the past.
For Guinness, more personal revelations surface just before a matinée performance when he finds himself in the Underworld, the landscape of which is dotted by virtual or near real graphic horrors.
Presumably his destination is an unexpected trek to his own premature death or simply a bad dream. Is it Hell or, as the wonderfully sardonic usher/guide/jester Yorick, with his ever-present symbolic bicycle riding helmet (Gordon Patrick White) declares, “Facebook”?
The preponderance of cute feline videos, suddenly appearing and reappearing and supposedly profound slogans of choice today tend to favour Yorick’s selection as to where Guinness has found himself.
Hamlet-911 is a strangely engaging, surrealistic venture – a play-within-a play – focusing on parallel, mirror versions of characters – all ultimately linked to the Bard’s own Hamlet’s torment with the life and death question governing his daily thoughts. So, Jeremy (Andrew Iles), a troubled young student, also with unresolved father issues, is a key figure throughout the proceedings.
Reaching out to Guinness before the Wednesday matinee performance for a chat, which is turned down dismissively by the actor, he returns to his virtual haunt, an online chat room for those considering suicide as the way-out.
So, while questions about reality and virtual truths are constants throughout the play’s rather tight 98-minute timeframe, Hamlet-911 is virtual feast of watching a multi-gifted company literally plumb the depths of MacDonald’s literary treasure, as Palmer brings disorientation and chaos to order in short order.
Based on an idea developed by Palmer and Vita Brevis Arts, the playwright said Hamlet-911 grew as she recognized in the Shakespearean classics there was a gender divide in the relationship to the Danish Prince, always a privilege of numerous male directors and actors.
In an earlier interview the author of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) said she felt left out of Shakespeare, believing “it’s a classical mainstream thing that has nothing to do with me,” with the same experience with Hamlet.
The company fits beautifully into the niche of this very unclassical approach with Shara’s character forced to determine just how much alike or different he is from his thespian father while Wentworth delivers his truly uncomfortable outdated views with unapologetic vigour, power and righteousness.
Dodd’s willingness to accept the falsehoods of ageism and sexism is pitch perfect; Sargisson’s struggles to deal with who Guinness really is are captured brilliantly; Micah Woods’ transformation from nervous understudy Danny playing Barnardo, then to Ophelia is marvellous; Eva Foote’s Jenna playing Ophelia and later Hamlet, impromptu recitation of a lengthy soliloquy without pause for punctuation or breath is a work-of-art.
Versatile actors like Wahsonti:io Kirby, as vital players in the all-knowing and ever-present chorus are essential to make such an involved, almost seemingly convoluted production work. As are the designers for set Jung-Hye Kim, costumer Ming Wong, lighting Leigh Ann Vardy, casting Beth Russell, alongside music director Franklin Brasz with MacDonald and Chris Ross-Ewart for original music.
Hamlet-911, an enthralling, entertaining and highly provocative play with interweaving splashes of humour and drama, continues at the Studio Theatre until October 2.