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Salt Lake City Weekly Switching Sex-Roles

Giving Shakespeare a good ribbing.

By Scott C. Morgan

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  If there's one playwright's work that is most open for interpretation, it would easily be William Shakespeare's. Whether it's modern updating (Romeo & Juliet) or postmodern parody (A Midwinter's Tale), Shakespeare's work is usually strong enough to withstand revisionist tinkering and still remain entertaining in the process.

Two welcome revisionist-takes on the Bard have graced Salt Lake City's stages with the recently closed A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Babcock Theatre and Salt Lake Acting Company's currently running Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). An honorable irreverence can be found in both productions, as Shakespeare becomes a vehicle to explore and comment upon current issues and sexual politics. Several eyebrows were raised when director Craig Rich's concept for A Midsummer's Night Dream included changing the traditionally heterosexual characters of Hermia and Lysander into a lesbian couple. But when played out on stage, Rich's variation worked surprisingly well, bringing a modern relevance and importance to a play that has usually been dismissed for being light and frothy.

With skeletal Gothic framed trees and Victorian costumes for the mortal characters, Rich's Midsummer suggests a historical context of turn-of-the-century England with its harsh laws and intolerance for homosexuality. Yet Rich does not constrain his Midsummer to Victorian severity, for his staging concepts and interpretation on the Athenian woodland fairies (which look like spandex-clad inhabitants of an '80s heavy metal video) are decidedly modern.

Rich also weaves more contrasts into his Midsummer, particularly with the dramatic weight installed in the lovers' mix-up scenes to counteract the play's broad comedy. The fear and desperation that grips Hermia when she is spurned and abandoned by Lysander (respectively and finely played by Shaela Ann Swallow and Stacey Lynne Jensen) can be discomforting for those accustomed to the lovers' subplot, which is usually played just for laughs. Instead, the lovers' stakes are raised, and Rich sheds a serious light on the risks of love and relationships.

With a thoughtful interpretation and an excellent cast, including Heather L. Howe as Helena and Tommy Barron as Bottom, Rich's A Midsummer Night's Dream is both timely and entertaining. As a happily wedded Hermia and Lysander walk off under a moonlit sky, one can't help but admire Rich's skillful way of blending a muted political call for tolerance and gay rights with the masterful art of Shakespeare.

A warning against perceived virtues: (from left) Annie Schilling, Betsy West and Theresa Ravnikar in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet).

While Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) does not rally around changing current laws, its political battles have to do with the sexes and the changing roles and interpretations that come with them. Playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald obviously had a field day as she turned the worlds of Othello and Romeo & Juliet upside-down and on their heads. In Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), MacDonald draws from obscure scholarly interpretations of Shakespeare and cleverly applies them to "what if ..." situations.

Goodnight Desdemona follows a mousy assistant professor named Constance Ledbelly who has a theory that Shakespeare's plots from Othello and Romeo & Juliet were stolen from two comedies by another playwright. Through some Twilight Zone-like time-warps, Constance journeys through time and fiction to become a character in both plays as she endeavors to find the original author and manuscript to each play.

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare will roar with laughter as Constance encounters the zany character changes wrought by MacDonald. Instead of being a beautiful and weak murder victim, Desdemona becomes a Xena-like warrior that loves violence, while Romeo & Juliet are depicted as sex-crazy and sexually fickle teenagers.

Shakespeare fans will also recognize MacDonald's parodying of other Shakespearean devices, ranging from Constance's mistaken identity as a boy, from Twelfth Night and As You Like It, to the appearance of the ghost Yoric, a la Hamlet, to warn and give advice to Constance.

While the comedic brilliance of Goodnight Desdemona is unquestionable, Salt Lake Acting Company's production of it lacks degrees of authenticity from some of the performances. Even though directors David Evanoff and Cynthia Fleming work very well at creating hilarious staging devices, their efforts to be constantly funny sometimes neglect character development and realism, particularly in the "real-world" scenes that take up a good chunk of the first act.

Nevertheless, the cast works very well together, particularly Betsy West's delightfully dithery Constance and Theresa Ravnikar's scheming and seductive Juliet.

In addition to giving Shakespeare a hearty ribbing, MacDonald also warns of idolizing fictitious characters for their perceived virtues. Constance discovers this as she goes through her bizarre Shakespearean trips, and in the process becomes a new woman. It all helps to make the play a hilarious revisionist romp, but also a smart reminder that art and fiction can be helpful to illustrate and expand life.

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