Review of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) published by Austin Live Theatre. August, 2009. Review written by Michael Meigs.

The Weird Sisters Theatre Collective’s Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet was a very Austin event. The Sisters performed Anne-Marie MacDonald’s broad feminist satire of Shakespeare and stuffy scholars in the backyard at the one and only Cathedral of Junk in South Austin, just a few blocks south of 290W/Ben White Boulevard. 

Closing night last Saturday was full, as a wide mix of folks filled up the very miscellaneous and inventive collection of chairs. Proprietor Vince Hannemann was rustling up seats right up till the opening, and he received a special ovation from the Sisters and the audience afterwards for his broad-spirited hosting.

The fun-loving feminist group was doing its fifth summer production. Their lengthy 2004 manifesto remains very much in effect. It begins, “WEIRD: We mean WEIRD in its original sense: wayward . We challenge the status quo, for we know that most theater drifts and defaults to old, hegemonic ways of interpreting, casting, directing, and producing.”

This is a loopy “what-if?” story about a woman academic, much neglected, misled and patronized by her thoughtlessly arrogant male supervisor.

Constance Ledbelly is struggling to write her thesis on Shakespeare. She has become intrigued by the fact that in neither Othello nor in Romeo and Juliet does a fool appear. If only a truth-teller like Touchstone or Feste or Lear’s fool had entered the stories,she reasons, these tales could have turned out not as trumped-up tragedies but as comedies. She assumes, then, originals by earlier authors, from which Shakespeare had erased the fool as an inconvenience . . . .

Leslie Guerrero as the prologue invited us to exercise our imaginations and to go with the ride, and quite a ride it was. After Connie’s puzzling over a mysterious scrap of undeciphered manuscript, a team of futuristic garbage workers erupts on the stage and appears to carry Connie off to the fields of her imaginings. The rest of Act I plays in Othello’s Cyprus just as Iago uses his handkerchief ploy to besmirch Desdemona’s honor. Act II moves to the streets of Verona just as Tybalt challenges Mercutio.

Connie ponders: why couldn’t someone just have told Othello what Iago was up to and thereby have saved everyone all the trouble? And since the quarreling in Verona occurs only because the lovers’ marriage is kept secret, why not blurt it out before the fighting starts? Once she has gotten oriented to her mindblowing transition into Shakespeare’s imaginings, Connie becomes the wise fool and does just those two things, with quite unexpected results.

Chris Humphrey plays wistful academic Constance Ledbelly with solemn sincerity. Initially downcast, she gives in to self-pity only for one brief moment, just before the garbage squad erupts onstage. The rest of the time she is mildly amazed, quizzical and engaged in the extravagant events. This is a droll turn and she’s very sympathetic throughout.

Vicki Yoder, the tallest of the group and the most robust in appearance, plays all of the swaggerers: clueless Professor Claude Night, Othello, and quarrelsome Tybalt. Lauren Schultz is her adversary as Iago and Romeo. They have a grand time with it all, and their acting styles are just two shades short of saloon melodrama.

The Desdemona story plays the smoothest. We find that Desdemona, played by Christa French, is more of a Diane or Amazon than a sheltered wifey. Desdemona welcomes Connie into warrior life in Cyprus as a trusted sage, quite overcoming our middle-aged academic. Iago keeps at his tricks but can’t discredit Connie.

Playwright MacDonald plays Connie’s bewildered ordinary speech against the surge of blank verse she invents for Shakespeare’s characters, and this technique raises the tone of these near-farcical doings to comedy pitch.

The second act does not rise to that level. Once Montagues and Capulets are reconciled, our Juliet (Noelle Fitzsimmons) quickly gets bored with the lack of romantic tension. There’s a truly dumb joke and pratfalls about a turtle separated from his shell, Romeo and Juliet quarrel, and Juliet falls instead for Connie the wise man. And then, after a revelation, for Connie the wise woman.

There’s some innocent bawdy, including the fencers’ parading of manly groin protectors. Eventually characters from both plays, deprived of their motives and cues for passion, gang up on poor Constance, who narrowly ‘scapes stifling.

She scolds them with a lesson that she has just learned for herself: life is not simple, it’s not about great passions, it’s messy and you just do the best you can.

Audience, players, and techs all had a fine time with these transformations. The players had conned their parts well and gloried in the saucy foolishness of it all. After all, what riper subjects are there for affectionate mockery than Shakespeare and academia?

For this 1988 work, her first, Canadian playwright Anne-Marie MacDonald received the Canadian Governor General’s Award, the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award and the Canadian Author’s Association Award.

Twenty years later, we were privileged to get the Austin spin on it.

For example, at one point Connie learns that she will be assigned to the university at Lubbock. “Lubbock!! But it’s so flat and absolutist there! I’m a relativist!”

And so are most of us, here in Austin. That’s why we enjoy our theatre and entertainment with a twist and a twinkle.

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