We know Shakepeare's Hamlet for its famous brace of be's, as in the title character's existential wondering re: "to" or "not to." Charlotte Jones' gentle, witty and enthralling play Humble Boy takes the bare bones of Hamlet, updates the location to a pretty cottage in the Cotswolds, makes the troubled prince a fat 35-year-old Cambridge astrophysicist and surrounds him not just with be's but bees, a lone hive, which is the only legacy left to him by his father, a dedicated apiarist of no renown.
What a perfectly wonderful play to see on a cold, wet winter night. Smart and sad-funny, full of allusions to the Prince of Denmark, "the jittery, frenzied world of quantum mechanics" and the mating habits of buzzy things, Humble Boy, running now at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, roils with interesting ideas and characters you actually want to know.
The scenery alone lends a warm splash of summer. Spilling across the full width of WaterTower's space inside the Addison Theatre Centre is a three-level garden bursting with blossoms and green grass. Clare Floyd DeVries' set design splits the audience on either side of the sun-dappled lawn. It is an inviting spot in which to spend a couple of hours, all the time this re-imagined Hamlet needs to sort through the relationships of a grieving son, his icy mother and her longtime lover, who also happens to be the father of...but that's getting ahead.
Some plays poke you in the forehead to get your attention, assault your senses with foul language and jangle your nerves with noisy confrontations. Some plays sneak up and tickle you behind the earlobes with clever little jokes and seductive moves. Humble Boy isn't so direct, allowing its story to unfold obliquely and at a gentle pace. It coaxes and then pulls back until you catch up. Before long, you're content to let it lead you down its winding garden path toward an ending that comes as a complete and completely satisfying surprise.
It's a spellbinder, this one, benefiting from superbly calibrated performances by the six members of the cast. Jones does pack her script with the odd soliloquy and lots of quippy back-and-forthing. It could all go soggy at the edges if the actors in it went too far in any direction. Here, they don't. Director Terry Martin chooses a cool approach to a play that builds to heated emotions. Hold back, he seems to have told his actors, and let the audience figure things out.
The actors get it, particularly Thomas Ward in the title role of the mordant Felix Humble. Newly arrived to the Baylor University drama faculty as a professor of acting, Ward makes his WaterTower debut in this production. Carrying his weight like someone who used to be slimmer but now believes he doesn't deserve to be, Ward makes the ideal mope. As Felix, he lets his shoulders sag under a baggy sweater and wanders the Humble garden like Hamlet haunting Elsinore, yearning to see his father's ghost. Instead Felix finds Jim (R Bruce Elliott), an old gardener who knows the Latin names of every flower and who seems to understand Felix better than anyone.
The graveling Gertrude of this piece is Flora Humble (dig those names), Felix's mum, played with starchy sexiness by Cindy Beall. Still a dish near 60, Flora's so ready to move on after her husband's funeral that before his ashes have cooled she's previewing engagement rings with her overeager boyfriend, a tourist bus tycoon named George Pye (Sean Hennigan). Felix dumped George's daughter Rosie (Shanna Riddle Ridenour, who fits the Ophelia profile fine) seven years before, making things even more complicated. Jones even gives us a substitute Polonius to meddle in, played here as a dotty but well-meaning neighbor named Mercy Lott (Lisa Fairchild).
It's all there, the to-be's and not-to-be's, but Humble Boy becomes its own good story when it leaves Hamlet in the dust and poses different problems about sons and mothers and husbands and wives. "You are determined to turn this into a tragedy, Felix, but you will not be able to," snaps Flora, who initially comes off as the meanest queen bee since Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. And then, what do you know, she goes and turns into a nice lady. Not Gertrude after all.
Part of the lovely lesson of this play is that the characters, when they find themselves in times of trouble, finally learn what Hamlet didn't: to "let be." Or is it "bee"? That is the question.
Second Thought Theatre came out of the chute three years ago as a new company that impressed audiences and critics with their sharp acting and daring productions. They've spent the past two seasons not living up to their own reputation.
Now comes Scapino, another moldy oldy by Molière (translated for this version by Jeremy Sams) about confused identities, rich daddies and a trickster looking to con some misers out of their money. Trying to put their own stamp on a low-comedy classic, Second Thought goes overboard in a bid to wring laughs out of every syllable. Not a word of the script is spoken without the accompanying choreography of exaggerated pratfalls, hair pulls, boob squeezes, crotch grabs, somersaults, trouser drops and so much facial mugging their cheeks must ache.
Problem is, you can't force physical comedy. And not one second of this mayhem, directed by Tom Parr IV, hits the comedy vein. Sometimes it's painfully, horribly bad, like the 40th time someone fake-crunches his nuts on one of the stripper poles and then flails to the floor in fake pain. We get it, it hurts. But honey, it ain't funny no matter how many times it happens.
Even with all the frenetic movement, the show moves at an escargot's pace. Slowing it down even more (the first act is a groaning 90 minutes long) are tacked-on song-and-dance numbers that do little to enhance the experience except to show off the lithe bods and ample cleavage of the four ladies (Allison Tolman, Lynn Blackburn, Kathleen Hamm, Wendy Bracken) playing dance-hall hoochies. Yes, they've set this French farce in a nightclub named Argante's. Argante being the name of one of the fathers taken in by the title character, the slick servant played by Lee Trull.
Trull was a mid-rehearsal replacement for an actor who dropped out of the production (smart move, kid). For Scapino he falls back into some familiar stances and voices he's used in other shows portraying other slimy creeps, a category of character in which he specializes by virtue of his beady-eyed mien and not because he's particularly good at the acting part of the job. In every role he plays, he leaves his mouth agape, like a just-hooked trout.
Scapino should offer a couple of hours of fun, not two and a half of ghastly gymnastics and overworked groin punches. A show that stands on its head trying to be funny just begs to be kicked in its ass when it isn't.
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