In James Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” an American matron tears through the Scottish play as though it’s a piece of detective fiction, seizing on Banquo, Macduff, and finally Lady Macbeth’s dad as the real regicide. American maven Todd Alcott conducts just such a deliberate misreading in Helsinor. This revisionist Hamlet whodunit, which Alcott writes and directs, takes the much maligned Claudius as its hero and his nattering nephew as its villain.
As the play opens, Claudius (Chuck Montgomery) plays a melancholy swain, resenting his senile brother (James Urbaniak as Hamlet Sr.) and courting his sexy sister-in-law (Sheri Graubert’s Gertrude). Claudius determines to murder the king, as much to salvage Denmark as to ravish Gertrude. But his Scandinavian idyll soon turns more rotten than a barrel of imperfectly preserved fish. Hamlet Jr. (Urbaniak again) comes home from college and doesn’t take kindly to the new paterfamilias. Soon the great Danes are battling it out via daggers and one-liners.
Quips aside (and the play would benefit from more), the play abounds with linguistic peculiarities. First, there’s Alcott’s penchant for deliberate anachronism. Though the men of Helsinor don tunics, visit apothecaries, and scratch battle plans onto parchment, their speeches spill over with the occasional reference to Mondale or “sucking ass.” Also, Alcott has overloaded the speech with outtakes from Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays. Claudius, praising Gertrude, observes, “What a piece of work is woman,” and speaks of “a tale told by an idiot.”
Alcott isn’t an idiot, but these tips of the hat to the Bard don’t help his play much. They only underscore that Helsinor is not Hamlet nor even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Unlike Stoppard’s play or even Thurber’s prose, Alcott stints on the jokes, favoring a more meditative tone. The actors, an able bunch, inhabit the lines gamely, but can’t manage to render them meaningful. Nevertheless, Urbaniak makes quite an impression as the doddering Hamlet Sr., alternately snarling at his flunkies and coddling the frog puppet he wears. Steven Rattazzi impresses as an unexpectedly wise Polonius, and Graubert makes a comely Gertrude. Adrian LaTourelle does an amusing turn as an apothecary, but Sean Runnette’s Horatio never seems quite sure what to do with his limbs and Patricia Dunnock’s Ophelia is, rather predictably, all wet. Montgomery certainly humanizes Claudius, but never makes him fascinating enough to justify Alcott’s play.
Perhaps Claudius isn’t a sufficiently intriguing figure—Alcott might have done better to take a leaf from Thurber’s or Stoppard’s book and selected a more obscure character as his focus. I still maintain Fortinbras: The Musical has real potential.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 11, 2001