A review by Joshua Kahn.
Hamlet gets the
Wicked treatment in Sacred Fools' world premiere production of
Skullduggery: A Musical Prequel to Hamlet. Written by Michael Shaw Fisher, the musical was born from a desire to tell the story of Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet Sr. unfettered by the unreliable viewpoint of "grieving son." But, despite some shocking (and not so shocking) twists, the story of
Skullduggery closely mirrors that of
Hamlet. This does well in elucidating the themes of history repeating itself, but does less for eliciting genuine surprise. It's what
The Force Awakens is to
A New Hope.
Claudius is the show's Hamlet: intellectual, sensitive, romantic, sympathetic. Like Wicked's Elphaba, he's an eternal villain given a shot at redeeming himself in the eyes of the audience. The show's first act, which takes place 30 years before the events of
Hamlet, presents a love triangle between Claudius, Hamlet Sr., and Gertrude. Claudius and Gertrude are introduced as giggling lovebirds, much to the brutish Hamlet Sr.'s disdain. But when Hamlet Sr. ascends to the throne and marries Gertrude for political purposes, the wheels of inevitable tragedy are set in motion. Though the ultimate outcome of these relationships is never in question, there's an undeniable joy in seeing these famous characters as young, melancholy Danes and piecing together the threads that will ultimately lead to Shakespeare's original.
Some of these threads work much better than others. The relationship between Claudius and his brother, a Robert Baratheon-ish Hamlet Sr. (played with gruff sensitivity by David Haverty) is strong emotional bedrock and Curt Bonnem, as a delightfully daffy Polonius (here playing Horatio to Claudius' Hamlet), lightens the mood considerably and with aplomb.
These high points come courtesy of Shakespeare himself and the relationships, story beats, and characters he created centuries ago. Weaker are Mr. Fisher's inventions. Much of the first act focuses on a group of rebels determined to assassinate Hamlet Sr. on vague charges of corruption...until a late-breaking, credulity straining plot twist involving the famous fool Yorick throws a wrench into the proceedings. A Greek chorus of gravediggers (gleefully led by Jeff Sumner) would seem to go against the playwright's intent of telling the story subjectively...but the Greek chorus isn't used often enough to really justify their inclusion as narrators.
A majority of the musical's many jokes rely on either referencing
Hamlet or on comical anachronisms and, like, totally modern lingo. The dialogue vacillates between stiff, pseudo-Shakespearean and contemporary American. John Bobek as Claudius deftly handles these variations and successfully puts a new spin on the famous character. But as we move away from Shakespeare's established characters, the script drops the pretenses of being a stately drama and verges into pure comedy. Notably, Rebecca Larsen as Polonius' wife Berta gives a lively, hilarious performance that would be completely out of place in Shakespeare's world but is greatly appreciated here.
Fortunately, most of these issues fade away in the superlative second act, which fast forwards the action 23 years to the month immediately preceding
Hamlet. Perhaps it's the old age makeup or the temporal shift, but the cast and script begins to gains the gravity befitting a Shakespearean tragedy. The plot relies heavily on the original here, from a musical-within-a-musical to visits from ghosts and murder most foul, but as the clock winds down to Prince Hamlet's return to Elsinore, the building tension and excitement is palpable. Though the dramatic proceedings are slowed a bit by some out-of-place comic subplots (an extended sequence featuring Ophelia and the Gravediggers comes to mind), some strong performances and Mr. Fisher's rhythmic, guitar-driven songs prevail over these shortcomings. In the final stretch especially, from the fatal confrontation between brothers to the striking final image,
Skullduggery achieves the pathos it's aiming for.
SKULLDUGGERY: The Musical Prequel to Hamletbook, lyrics & music by Michael Shaw Fisher directed by Scott Leggett
musical direction by Michael Teoli
choreography by Natasha Norman
SEPTEMBER 30 - NOVEMBER 5, 2016
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
Sunday Matinees @ 3pm beginning Oct. 16