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Hamlet in Bed

Michael Laurence's new drama blurs dramatic lines as a man obsessed with the Melancholy Dane attempts to find his mom.

Michael Laurence as Michael and Annette O'Toole as Anna in Laurence's play Hamlet in Bed, directed by Lisa Peterson, at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre.
(© Tristan Fuge)

The man we see before us is not Hamlet, although he could be. Like Shakespeare's prince, this is a man on the verge of a breakdown who will put himself through the ringer to attain his goals, no matter how much blood needs to be shed.

His name is Michael, and he's the mysterious protagonist of Hamlet in Bed, by the writer and performer Michael Laurence, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Michael (the character) is an actor on the verge of 40, and he's obsessed with two things: playing Hamlet and finding his birth mother. In this ethereal new drama, those two goals converge in unnerving ways as lines are blurred and lives are changed irrevocably.

Having been left by his biological mother at the hospital where he was born, Michael (Laurence) considers himself abandoned. He was adopted and grew up in an abusive household, and then ran away to New York, where he has tried to make a life for himself as best he can. It didn't go too well. On the eve of his birthday, a bookseller in Greenwich Village provides him with the weatherworn diary of an actress who played Ophelia in the 1970s. Michael reads it and discovers something that rocks his world: this woman, Anna, could be the mother for whom he's searched his entire life.

Anna (Annette O'Toole) stopped acting years ago. Now, she's an office drone by day and an alcoholic by night, working her way through every barstool in Manhattan. Michael decides to track her down, first by stalking her from afar and then by crafting an idea worthy of the Melancholy Dane himself. Michael lures Anna into starring as Gertrude in a version of Hamlet that he's directing. But there's one crucial thing he leaves out of his pitch at her audition: it's not a real production.

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As Hamlet in Bed progresses, the circumstances get more and more sinister. The lines between reality and theater blur to an uncomfortable degree as Michael's intentions are slowly revealed. Under Lisa Peterson's direction, both Laurence and O'Toole deliver extremely fascinating performances that are the polar opposite of each other. In Jessica Pabst's hippie-chic costumes, O'Toole is delicate and sensitive, with eyes on the verge of tears and a voice ready to let out a giant sob. Laurence, on the other hand, is a man on the verge of an emotional explosion after years of desperation. His intimidating physical presence, combined with his forceful personality, turns him into a hand grenade with a pulled pin. You don't want to get in his way.

Peterson's creative team complements the unnerving tone established early on. Rachel Hauck's set, the dingy backstage area at a theater much like Rattlestick, looms large over the proceedings. Scott Zielinski's ample use of footlights in place of overhead lamps creates ghoulish shadows. Bart Fasbender contributes eerie guitar-driven incidental music. And J. David Brimmer choreographs dangerously real-looking fights.

There are a few crucial shortcomings in the script, though. Hamlet in Bed is a genre-defying work that blends lengthy narrative monologues and brief dialogue scenes, but not in a way that feels particularly fluid. The full scenes themselves are much stronger overall, and it's lovely to watch Laurence and O'Toole sink their teeth into the compelling characters he has created. In the end, they're just a pair of lost souls with loose screws and life wounds who want nothing more than to find a home. Who couldn't relate to that?

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