An amiable fellow assumes leadership after a chaotic transfer of power; his critics find him shallow but thankfully more decisive than his predecessor. He immediately sets to rewriting the official story of his ascension, shaping history to fit his ambition, but the ghosts of sins keep coming back to haunt him.
Sound familiar? It's unlikely that Lee Blessing had George W. Bush in mind when he wrote Fortinbras in the early 1990s, but his darkly comic riff on Shakespeare's Hamlet offers intriguing parallels to the 2000 election.
Fortinbras is often cut from stage productions of the lengthy Hamlet, reaching the Danish castle at Elsinore just after the bloody climax of Shakespeare's play. He's Hamlet's doppelgänger, a mostly offstage presence whose decisive battlefield leadership is subtly juxtaposed with Hamlet's fecklessness—his inability to avenge his father's death, his mother's infidelity, the usurpations of his murderous uncle.
Blessing expands the parallels, giving us a Fortinbras (David Reider) who's cheerful where Hamlet (Rudolph Niemann) was morose, confident where Hamlet hesitated, brash where Hamlet was bookishly introspective. Though Horatio (Andrew Vonderschmitt), charged by the dying prince to safeguard the truth, doubts the new king's abilities, Fortinbras recognizes the power of spin. Doubting that anyone'll believe Horatio's story (pirate rescues! Poisoned blades!!), Fortinbras sets about creating another one: "We need a story . . . that'll show people that everything that's happened up till now had to happen so that I could become king." It's destiny, tailor-made for Fortinbras.
It's also doomed. The ghosts of the recently deceased return, each demanding fidelity to Shakespeare's original. Only lusty Ophelia (Amanda Kukuk, alternating with Megan Zuliani), unhappy with her appearance in that original, stands in their way, leaving Fortinbras torn between his desire for revision and the possibilities of hot spectral sex.
If the cast doesn't capture the rich cynicism of Blessing's worldly characters, they deftly pull off the comedy. Director Alex Golson strikes a perfect balance between funny and thought-provoking; the show's admirable breakneck pace is marred only by unnecessarily long transitions, which could be tightened up, or—like Hamlet himself—mercilessly cut.
FORTINBRAS AT ORANGE COAST COLLEGE'S DRAMA LAB THEATRE, 2701 FAIRVIEW RD., COSTA MESA, (714) 432-5580. THURS.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. NO SHOWS THANKSGIVING WEEKEND. THROUGH DEC. 8. $8-$12.