Island Fringe Festival:
A Better Play Than Hamlet
Review by Sean McQuaid
As a longtime admirer of both literary icon William Shakespeare and accomplished funnyman Lorne Elliot, your crumbling chronicler was eager to sample Elliot’s new Shakespeare-inspired comedy despite its ominously hubristic title: A Better Play Than Hamlet.
Perhaps the most celebrated and highly anticipated production of this year’s Island Fringe Festival, Elliot’s self-penned one man show debuted in a Culinary Institute lecture theatre, a venue uniquely ideal for the play’s subject matter.
Elliot plays a drunken, cynical, immeasurably embittered professor giving the keynote speech about Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet at an academic symposium. A Shakespeare roast of sorts ensues as Elliot’s professor pokes often clever, occasionally vicious fun at the Bard in general and Hamlet in particular.
The professor lands some very palpable hits along the way, ranging from the oddly Italian-named soldiers patrolling Hamlet’s Danish castle to the fact that Hamlet is lucky enough to be abducted by “the relaxed, friendly type of pirates” when Shakespeare’s plot requires them; but as the lecture continues, Elliot’s I-come-to-bury-Shakespeare-not-to-praise-him diatribe starts to reveal whole other agendas both professional and personal on his rogue academic’s part, not to mention the fact that said academic just might be going mad himself.
The result is a fun, surprisingly thoughtful black comedy with more layers than might be expected at first glance, and more respect for Shakespeare’s melancholy masterwork than its provocative title implies.
The Culinary Institute classroom not only fits this play perfectly, but it also provides some of the best acoustics and sight lines of any Island Fringe venue this year. Elliot is always visible and almost always audible, though his character’s often drunkenly slurred speech is a bit too mumbly for clarity in spots.
A past master of the comedic monologue from his decades of stage work, Elliot makes the most of his script here with well-calibrated shifts in timing and mood, scoring laugh after laugh. It’s a funny performance of a funny script, despite a few rough spots — a Holocaust reference or two, for instance, feels jarringly over-the-top even coming from Elliot’s bitterly unstable professor.
Most of the time, though, Elliot successfully navigates the murky waters between black comedy and darker drama as he explores the professor’s personal issues and ruminates on the significance of a literary classic while scoring plenty of cheap laughs at said classic’s expense, whether it’s turning Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be” speech into a drinking song or denouncing the “totally unnecessary” Fortinbras subplot.
Come to think of it, PEI’s recent abridged Hamlet production (directed by ACT’s Terry Pratt) excised that same subplot in its entirety, so Elliot’s professor may find more than a few real-life sympathizers with portions of his manifesto; but whether audiences agree or disagree with his points, odds are Elliot will leave them laughing.