Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin have written one whopper of a play. “Hamlet’s Big Adventure” is part satire, part musical, part knee-slapping, guffaw-inducing, completely silly romp through the glorious closet of William Shakespeare’s posthumous id.
“Hamlet’s Big Adventure,” which opened last weekend at Napa Valley College, runs through May 19.
It’s clearly a mashup of all the jokes a Shakespearean actor has had in his head after years of studying the plays, made into a hilarious, hammy two-hour, hammy rendition of Hamlet’s supposed beginnings. It’s a love letter to one of Shakespeare’s most challenging and complicated plays, and also a meditation on the acting profession — its slings and arrows and outrageous fortunes. And, it rhymes!
There is a cast of three: Peter Downey who plays Hamlet and Polonius, Jessica Romero who plays the King and Ophelia, and Chad Yarish, who plays Yorick and Lilith (Lilith being Ophelia’s mother, an apocryphal character not in the original play).
Such a small cast necessitates frequent costume changes. Over and over, Romero’s King’s beard and crown comes and goes, replaced by Ophelia’s blond wig; Downey’s bowl-cut tresses as Hamlet are removed to reveal Polonius’ bald head and Yarish replaces Yorick’s fool’s hat with a crest for Lilith that gives her a truly Elizabethan air.
In this play, Hamlet is beseeched by his father the King to go out and find himself. Being a king, apparently, is a bore, what with all the committee meetings and the members of the court jockeying for power. It’s not the life he wants for his son. He thinks that Hamlet should go into acting, giving the playwright a fertile basis on which to critique the profession.
Downey’s Hamlet is demure and callow, apprehensive about his plan to become an actor. Yorick, whose employment as the court jester allows him to speak from personal experience, says: “I think that even you will agree/there is nothing worth less than a theater degree.” But the king insists. So Hamlet enters an apprenticeship with Yorick.
Then Lilith comes in with a pet project of hers. She has decided to take on the cause of the nunnery, which follows from Hamlet’s famous line in the play, when he tells Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery,” a line that some say does, or does not, refer to prostitution. An aside is made by Lilith referencing this, when she says, “Oh, it’s not that kind of a nunnery.”
Lilith asks the king if he will donate money to help restore the nunnery, and he hems and haws. Then, slightly apropos of nothing, he decides to knight Lilith, whereupon he wields a huge sword that ends up stabbing and killing her, allowing her to come back as a ghost to haunt her daughter Ophelia.
Yarish is a stately, dignified Lilith, with only a slightly raised voice, she’s regal and superior. Whereas his Yorick is tall and imposing, quick-witted and sarcastic. He is the one who always seems to know what’s going on. It must have been exhausting to constantly switch from one character to the next in such a short time.
Romero’s Ophelia is sweet and kind. She seems innocent and cheerful — except when Polonius and Lilith won’t let her take swim lessons. She appears, hilariously, wearing flippers and floaties, begetting a cascade of rhymes with Hamlet that are a slap stick, droll complement to Shakespeare’s sonnets.
In the second act, there is a sword fight between Laertes and Fortinbras, that echoes the one at the end of Hamlet where everyone dies. But Laertes just got back from a mime school in France so the whole sword fight is done in mime, with Yorick doing side effects with iron bars, a mechanism that makes a continuous clicking sound — for when Laertes cracks his neck in preparation for fighting Fortinbras — and a cone through which Yorick makes the sound effects for a lightsaber. With just a breath from Yorick and a slight adjustment by Laertes and Fortinbras, we’re now in the Star Wars universe. Laertes then chokes Fortinbras the way Darth Vader does that lieutenant who doesn’t have faith in the force in the first installment of the Star Wars movies.
That is the magic of theater done well: with just a slight sound effect, well executed, and entire twist on an old conceit can be cross referenced with another epic familiar to audiences hundreds of years later. And it’s that creativity that leads to enormous laughs.
To fulfill the dead Lilith’s wish of saving the nunnery, they stage a variety show fundraiser that is basically a reason for the actors to do the zaniest, kitchiest, dead on arrival jokes you’ve ever heard. Delmer, the grave digger, is now a stand-up comedian, fitting because in Hamlet he is the comic relief. There is a segment in which dirty nuns make jokes about planning a “vocation” five years in advance because they believe in “predestination.”
And also, she mentions, grabbing a guy by the “Ecclesiastes.” Further, show includes a cameo by Falstaff, which is an Easter egg because Falstaff is a character that is mentioned in four of Shakespeare’s plays. He talks about his memoir called, “A Night to Remember,” which has to be an allusion to something.
Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, by the way, is spending time with Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, at the fjords. In this universe, they’ve been having an affair all along, prompting Yorick to comment, sotto voce, “Is this such a good idea?”
Before you go, listen to Tom Lehrer’s “I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica” because they cover this song’s jaunty melody and rhyme scheme at the end of the show. I’ve been listening to the song on repeat, just to maintain the ebullient feeling I had when I exited the theater. It has a Broadway in the 1950s sensationalism to it, that is so clever in in its rhyming, and rapid fire in its delivery, that you won’t be able to keep from laughing.
After the show, the cast met us in the foyer of the theater. I told them that it looks like they were having a good time. They stared at me shocked, their eyes belying a wired exhaustion. “Well,” Yarish said, “I guess that means we’re a success!” But the subtext was that it’s taken a lot of work to put on a show this challenging.
Somewhere, some actor on his deathbed, said, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” If comedy is hard, pulling off this play is like getting one’s PhD in astrophysics. Only funnier.