In “Hamlet in Bed,” a new play which has opened at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, an actor named Michael (Michael Laurence), who was given up for adoption as an infant by his actress mother, tracks down a drunken middle-aged woman, Anna (Annette O’Toole) he suspects of being his mother. He hires her to play Gertrude to his Hamlet in a production that he’s directing. He doesn’t tell her that they might be related in real life. His directorial concept, he tells her, is that the action takes place mostly in bed.
The premise of the play, written by the actor who’s playing Michael, Michael Laurence, allows for liberal recitations from “Hamlet” during “rehearsals” (it’s not clear that Michael is actually mounting a production of “Hamlet”), which show off the acting chops of both performers. It also infuses the new play with complicated parallels between Shakespeare’s characters and Michael Laurence’s. Some of this is clever, as when Anna and Michael are arguing over their characters’ motivations and actions, while Michael is really arguing with his (maybe) mother about her actions. There are even a few touches of incongruous humor, as when Michael comes out holding a skull and when the two characters dance separately to the Ray Charles hit “You Don’t Know Me.”
But too much of “Hamlet in Bed” feels implausible and tiresomely hip. Directed by Lisa Peterson, the play is presented on a dark, nearly bare stage, the actors dressed in black. The initial tone is infused with self-serious film-noir, which morphs into avant-garde collage and from there into primal scream therapy.
That the character Michael is obsessed with portraying Hamlet doesn’t seem out of the ordinary; that’s fairly normal for an actor. But that connection to “Hamlet” is not enough for Laurence: Michael’s mother conceived Michael when she was playing Ophelia in a production of “Hamlet” forty years ago; her partner in producing Michael was the star of the production. At one point in “Hamlet in Bed,” a third actor is introduced, only as a voice-over – he is the ghost of both Michael’s AND Hamlet’s father.
Playwrights of course long have borrowed from the Bard to great effect, but it’s not clear what the audience is supposed to take away from “Hamlet in Bed,” other than the urge to see these two good actors assay the original.
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Hamlet in Bed
At Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
By Michael Laurence; directed by Lisa Peterson; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Scott Zielinski; music and sound by Bart Fasbender; projections by Dave Tennent; fight director, J. David Brimmer
Cast: Michael Laurence, Annette O’Toole.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: $35 (student tickets: $5)
Hamlet in Bed is set to run through October 25.