In his book Shakespeare A to Z, Charles Boyce says that the character of Fortinbras, prince of Norway, "symbolizes a lesson in political morality that Shakespeare offered in several plays: Personal evil in powerful members of society will weaken the state as a whole, often resulting in a surrender of sovereignty to another country."
Evil is such a nasty word, the Norwegian prince might well be thinking in Lee Blessing's play, Fortinbras, in which the title character is portrayed as the ultimate spin doctor.
The University of Toledo's department of theater and film is presenting Fortinbras through Feb. 27, and despite a few weak performances, it is a biting commentary on politics and power. It is also extremely funny.
This thoroughly enjoyable production starts with the final scene of Hamlet, in which the dying prince, surrounded by his dead family, implores Horatio to tell the world the truth about the tragedy.
He dies, and at that moment, Fortinbras strolls in, planning to make a royal visit on his way home from the Norwegian war against Poland.
Fortinbras learns what has happened and decides to take over. He orders the servant Osric to store the bodies somewhere and clean up the mess, then he can take over the throne and announce the tragedy to the people of Denmark.
But the public isn't going to hear the facts of the tragedy, because they're not very believable, he says. A tale that includes a Polish spy is much more credible.
Horatio is aghast, "But that's not what happened," he protests.
"I'll bet it will be," Fortinbras replies.
This argument continues throughout the play. At one point, Horatio says, "Truth goes beyond death. It cannot be changed."
"Yes," Fortinbras replies smugly. "But it can be ignored."
Horatio's protests fall unheeded, and he is bewildered to discover that Fortinbras is right; the people prefer the spy version to the truth.
It will take a few ghosts to help Fortinbras understand Horatio's point of view.
Rob Ruck as Horatio and Pete Cross as Fortinbras are both theater majors at UT, and they are marvelous as the honorable versus the opportunistic.
Also delightful are Nikki Soldner as a petulant ghost of Ophelia, and Joshua Lee, who plays Osric, a servant who has made toadying an art form.
Tom Zallocco as the Polish Spy looks as if he escaped from Mad magazine, and Adrian actor Peter Mackey has a commanding presence as the ghost of Polonius.
Eric Jenne as Hamlet and Marty Coleman as Laertes are less sure of their characters, but their tentativeness doesn't cause the production to falter. Much more aggravating at the dress rehearsal was a sound system that occasionally refused to behave.
Viewers should be aware that there are some frank depictions of sex and raunchy behavior. Both seem appropriate to the offbeat plot.
"Fortinbras" is scheduled through Feb. 27 in UT's Center for Performing Arts. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and UT faculty, staff, and alumni, and $8 for UT students. Information: 419-530-2375.
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