Aeneid Theater Company stages ‘Hamlet’ satire

“Fortinbras,” originally written as a critique of the first Bush administration, found a new home at Massman Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Aeneid Theatre Company)

Though Lee Blessing wrote “Fortinbras” as a critique of former president George H. W. Bush in 1991, the play still carries with it a timely precision.

Watching the play, it’s hard not to notice the parallels between the protagonist Fortinbras — who invents and distorts the truth for his own gain — and players in the current political climate. Yet, director senior Ian Stewart Riley said they didn’t want to overplay their hand on this front.

“It would be very easy to have Fortinbras walk in with a combover and an oversized tie and a poorly fitting suit, but who is that for?” Riley said. “That’s just an ‘SNL’ sketch that goes on too long.”

“Fortinbras,” a new production by the independent, student-run Aeneid Theatre Company,  premiered last weekend at Massman Theatre. The comedic play takes place after the events of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, “Hamlet,” when Prince Fortinbras of Norway takes the throne and features most of the cast of “Hamlet” as ghosts.

According to Riley, though some political satire elements are at play, Fortinbras is ultimately a sympathetic character who’s doing the best he can in an “overwhelming and surreal situation.” Riley said the audience shouldn’t be glad to watch Fortinbras fall, as he’s just a guy who tries to have all the answers but soon realizes he doesn’t — and there are consequences to his arrogance.

Rather than diving too far into the political satire, much of the humor in “Fortinbras” stems from its interplay with the plot of “Hamlet.” This close relationship with the original text may be part of the reason “Fortinbras” isn’t often performed on a large scale, Riley said.

“It is a very fun play to big theater nerds,” Riley said. “But it’s not something [where] you’d come in from out of town and be like, ‘Let’s go see this weird satirical look at ‘Hamlet.’”

Nevertheless, at Sunday’s production, the crowd certainly seemed to engage with the jokes poking fun at “Hamlet.”

Sophomore Brandon Lessard, who plays Laertes, said “Fortinbras” openly mocks the subtext of the original play. For instance, it’s often said that there exists a subtextual sexual tension between Hamlet and his mother, Lessard said, a plot point “Fortinbras” calls out explicitly.

Riley said the amount that “Fortinbras” relies on “Hamlet” initially caused him to struggle a bit, as he wasn’t as familiar with Shakespeare’s play as his colleagues. Lessard, like some others on the cast,  reread “Hamlet” in preparation.

“I definitely didn’t know much at first,” Lessard said. “It’s hard to tell a joke when you don’t know what the punchline is.”

Another way the play toys with “Hamlet” is through its portrayal of the central characters, whose personalities are largely opposite to their “Hamlet” counterparts. Laertes, for instance, says he’s not a man of violence at one point in “Fortinbras,” a marked shift from the man who rushes back to Denmark and kills Hamlet in the original play.

Likely the starkest change in character is seen in Ophelia, a more outspoken, central character in “Fortinbras.” Junior student Celia Rivera plays Ophelia. Rivera noticed that the character often doesn’t get to say what she really thinks or do what she really wants in the original production.

“She doesn’t get to have a life,” Rivera said. “So for her, in death, this is … the time for her to do things that she never got to do and decide what her own legacy will be.”

Ultimately, Ophelia must accept the past as it happened — a realization Rivera sees as crucial to the arc of the play. To Rivera, “Fortinbras” boils down to this: Both Ophelia and Fortinbras are holding onto realities they know they can’t have and must accept it.

“Life has to go on — you can’t hold on to what was, you just have to … move on into the future.” Rivera said. “You can’t rewrite [the truth], you just have to let it be.”