Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)
Aug. 30, Sept. 4-6, 8-9, 8 p.m.; Aug. 31 and Sept. 7, 3 p.m.
Chapel Theatre, 172 Calhoun St.
Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) begins as a somewhat serious literary adventure and ends as farcical search for one woman's true purpose in life.
The play succeeds in part because of its cheeky humor. It's the performers, though, in pumping up their characters with full-blooded jocularity and poise, who win this production a gold medal.
Professor Constance Ledbelly (played by Samantha Pedings) also seeks precious metals. But her reward will arrive only when she settles one of literature's biggest debates — whether Shakespeare's Othello and Romeo and Juliet were actually written as comedies instead of tragedies.
In a red-knitted hat and loose-fitting clothes, Constance is distracted from her classroom duties, and scrawls essays in longhand while swigging a can of beer. She preens for Claude Knight (Michael Smallwood), a colleague and haughty lecturer, and obsesses over his feelings for her. She is set swirling by these disillusioning circumstances and magically transported to another world in which Shakespeare is God, his characters flesh and blood.
Despite its aspirations, Ann-Marie MacDonald's play doesn't achieve plausible conflict or resolution. Her heroine's misadventures amount to a series of offbeat asides that reference Shakespeare's plays and flaunt Constance's self-effacing personality. Ultimately, it's a farce, a tale of tales hatched by a character less interested in Shakespeare than in herself.
But its flaws might be this production's greatest attribute. By using students, especially now as the semester has just started, Goodnight Desdemona achieves a breezy, insider jokiness. The cast, all of whom attend CofC, benefits from a wry attitude, coupled by what seems to be an understanding of the play's shortcomings.
The light, carefree approach allows the performers to enjoy their time on stage, and they, more so than Constance or Desdemona or any of the other fictional characters, are the ones who leave an indelible mark on the audience.
Directed by CofC professor Wayne Wilson with sensitivity and restraint, the play settles into a physically demanding yet well-defined exhibition of jest and professionalism. Wilson appears to recognize the play's lack of real drama, its inability to provide a captivating story, and therefore sets the performers free.
Indeed, the dialogue has humor and insight and the plot has dramatic inclinations, but it is the level of instinctual and physical freedom — the swordfights, the fits of spontaneous passion — that really satisfy. It's the performers' silly dexterity that makes the play entertaining.
The players seamlessly switch from character to character. Sometimes their costumes are not quite right — a bowtie dangling from a collar, a dress drooping from a hip — but again, to judge this play as it should be, these oversights are its charm.
Sam Pedings flits across the stage in affected embarrassment, and catapults her character from homely introvert to enticing adventurer. Michael Smallwood shows his depth, as he shifts from academic villain to buxom nurse. Lauren Riddle, in charge of each of her characters, gives Desdemona a masochistic, sassy air, and plays an affable, mischievous Mercutio who chuckles at adversity.
Staged at the cozy Chapel Theatre, where the audience is so close to the stage it can hear an actor's heart sink when he drops a line, the lighting was sporadic, ill-timed, and offset by the boxy glow of students in the audience texting on their cell phones.
But to my mind, the missteps, the mediocre script, the packed house and the grateful performers exemplified the beginning of a semester in which the College of Charleston's theater productions will prevail as a destination for off the cuff, interesting theater.