At the end of Hamlet, the stage is littered with bodies. Lee Blessing's Fortinbras picks up where Shakespeare left off, putting a hilarious new spin on where those bodies are buried. The wit is wry and the characters involving in this lively production at the South Suburban Theatre Company. But though the play appears to have something fresh to say, it never really spits it out.

In Shakespeare's version of the tale, Queen Gertrude was poisoned accidentally by her husband, Claudius, who was later stabbed by Prince Hamlet, who was poisoned by Laertes, who was likewise fenced to death by Hamlet. Hamlet's school friend Horatio contemplated suicide, but as Hamlet lay dying, he asked Horatio to tell his story to the world. So Horatio was stuck with life. Enter Fortinbras, prince of Norway, fresh from the Polish wars. Fortinbras ordered the bodies placed on public view so Horatio could tell the truth about the mass regicide.

When Blessing's Fortinbras enters the bloody scene, however, he's not so addicted to the truth--and he's not too bright. He decides that Horatio's story is unbelievable and that the people need a simpler truth they can digest more easily. His solution? A preposterous story about a Polish spy causing all the havoc.

Poor Horatio keeps trying to get the real story out, but Fortinbras is right--nobody believes him. Meanwhile, the castle fills up with ghosts. Gertrude and Claudius still lust after each other but keep trying to repent. Laertes can't accept that he's dead and just wants to play ball. Polonius is now almost incapable of speaking and can no longer give advice. Ophelia is no longer the innocent victim of fate but has graduated to the status of succubus--and she's good at it, as Fortinbras soon learns. As for Hamlet, who had such a hard time taking action to begin with, he finds himself all head and no body--a picture on a TV screen.

Fortinbras hasn't got much in the way of a plot; it's more a collection of characters getting on each other's nerves. But South Suburban has assembled a terrific collection. The sweet Ophelia is played by the always powerful Trudi Carin Voth, who wanders around the castle pulling moss out of her hair and generally asserting her sexuality. Tom McCarthy and Marta Barnard are terrifically matched as Claudius and Gertrude--all exaggerated lust and sophisticated hypocrisy--and they add a strong comic absurdity to the production. Geoffe Kent's particularly ironic and sophisticated version of Hamlet stays with you long after you leave the theater, and Kip Yates makes the beleaguered Horatio touchingly vulnerable and bright.

But attractive as Marc Robins is in the title role, he lacks the self-discipline as an actor to keep us interested in Fortinbras's fate. His tends to be a one-note performance--and that note teeters on the edge of hysteria.

Part of Robins's problem lies in Blessing's writing. The playwright has come up with a delightful idea for a contemporary play--the problem of truth in history is always relevant, just as truth in art is always interesting. But Blessing seems to be confused, and that confusion makes a muddle of the second act and the play's ending. As fun as it all is, it's not quite an integrated work of art. As Horatio tells us, the "truth will out"--but it doesn't seem to matter.


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