In the program for Hart House Theatre’s new production of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), director Carly Chamberlain has this to say about Constance Ledbelly, the protagonist of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s famous Canadian play: “Constance’s story is a very human experience. She is on the noblest of journeys: the search for her true identity, her essential self.” And while there’s a lot going on in Goodnight Desdemona—time travel, mistaken identity, mysterious quests, and cross-dressing, just to start—it’s ultimately this sense of humanity that shines through and makes Hart House’s latest production an enjoyable one.
Written by MacDonald in 1988, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is a comedic reworking of two of Shakespeare’s most iconic tragedies: Othello and Romeo and Juliet. In MacDonald’s tale, initially set in the present day, Constance is an overworked assistant professor who receives little appreciation for her efforts and no requited interest from the boss she secretly pines for. One day, she finds herself sucked into a time portal that masquerades as a garbage can and lands back in the tumultuous times of Othello and Romeo and Juliet. Finding herself able to alter the tragic fates of Shakespeare’s characters, Constance has the additional challenges of trying to blend in believably with the time period and searching for the missing pieces of a puzzle that will aid her own academic pursuits.
The crux of both Constance’s academic theorizing and the play itself is the idea that Shakespeare’s tragedies could be reworked as comedies with a few simple alterations. In turn, the real treat in watching Goodnight Desdemona is the clever ways in which MacDonald subverts the audience’s expectations of two very famous plays, often landing well-known Shakespearean characters in unexpected and humorously compromising positions. In particular, the representation of Romeo and Juliet as petulant and snivelling teenagers is rife with comedy. In Hart House’s production, Katie Ribout and especially Theatre Erindale alumnus Nathan Bitton seem to have a lot of fun playing these young lovers as complete flakes already bickering and scoping out new romantic interests the day after their wedding.
Theatre Erindale also mounted a production of Goodnight Desdemona back in 2012. The differences between the two versions are more plentiful than one might guess. While Theatre Erindale offered a more modern and overtly madcap telling of the tale, Hart House opts for a more traditional Shakespearean tone when it comes to costuming (minus the Chuck Taylors) and line delivery. The humour and subversion of the text are certainly still there, but in some ways, it feels like more of straight-faced send-up of Shakespeare’s classics. Both approaches are valid, and both have their strengths, but it does make for surprisingly different viewing experiences.
Goodnight Desdemona is a briskly paced play with a lot of story to fit in, and at times, Hart House’s production felt a bit like it was barrelling forward without taking a moment to breathe and let the cleverness of the script fully sink in. It takes an almost workmanlike approach to the text, and even to the staging, which seems like a somewhat incongruous choice for an otherwise fairly colourful play.
Chamberlain is no stranger to the Hart House Theatre stage, having taken on acting roles in multiple past productions and served as assistant director for last year’s Robin Hood: The Legendary Musical Comedy. Now, she takes on full directing duties for the first time with Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). As mentioned in the program, she seems to have a particular interest in the play’s female characters, and some of the most effective moments come when Constance is navigating the immediately complicated relationships she forges with Desdemona and Juliet. Constance herself is also a refreshingly well-rounded character, partly thanks to Lesley Robertson’s likeable performance, a solid anchor in a suitably wacky and occasionally muddled production.
Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) has inherent appeal thanks to the well-worn material it references, and Hart House presents a faithful and entertaining retelling. For Shakespeare fans in particular, the clever spins on dramatic tropes and the uncompromisingly tongue-in-cheek examination of Shakespeare’s classics are bound to be appreciated.
Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) runs at Hart House Theatre until March 8.