Comedy, or Not Comedy? That is the Question…

Have there been any famous productions that staged one of Shakespeare’s tragedies as an overt comedy?

I’m not talking about metatheatricality that anachronistically mocks the ridiculous aspects of his plays (the Bard himself dipped into this (insufferable) territory with Act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). I’m asking for a take that wrings every drop of humor from what’s already on the page. Radical-reinvention-phobes need not worry; it’d be achievable merely through a slight shift in approach (I mean…the denouements’ carpet-bomb carnage often induce giggles, anyways!). But cheap yucks aren’t the goal; this style could deconstruct the fine line between tragedy and comedy, on stage and off — a signature Shakespearean philosophy.

Given his preternatural comic gifts, Michael Urie as Hamlet presented a perfect opportunity; his manic clowning (or, shall we say, his “antic disposition”) can still retain emotionally-resonant pathos, because his hysterics — no matter how panderingly crowd-pleasing — feel rooted in text, and thus like natural outgrowths of character, a deft balancing act necessary for a tragedy-as-comedy experiment.

Unfortunately, Michael Kahn’s revival at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater Company opted for the usual mixture, in regards to both tone and, well, most everything else (the aesthetic: a run-of-the-mill, standard-issue, modern-dress surveillance-cum-police state.). Urie brings his trademark (fallback?) flair for the funny to the parts commonly played for laughs, but he fails to subvert the expected interpretations elsewhere to a meaningful degree.

Heck, he’s not even responsible for the cleverest inversion here: double-casting the actor who plays Fortinbras as one of the guards opens up the possibility that the latter was Fortinbras in disguise all along! His — or, in this case, her — master plan: plant the idea of the ghost — and its revenge request — in Hamlet’s head, and let the rest take care of itself. Smart insurgents understand that sowing discord from the inside is an easy way to destabilize power and ultimately topple a competing kingdom, especially when there’s a young hothead around just jonesing to unleash mad destruction the world over. That’s some Richard III shite, right there.

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