Usually, when I recommend a show at Murray’s Desert Star Playhouse, it’s with a disclaimer: “See this show if you don’t mind some eye-rollingly bad jokes and if you want a silly, sort-of funny evening out with the family.” I’ve seen the last 12 shows there, and while we generally enjoy them, we also recognize that we’re not usually talking about cutting-edge comedy here.
But with the current show — “Hamlet: This Ain’t Exactly Shakespeare” — I can recommend it without reservation: This is a funny show. Not funny in a dumb way (though there is a little of that), and not funny in a you-don’t-get-out-much-do-you? way (though there is a little of that), but deliciously, uproariously, even intelligently FUNNY. It is hands-down the best of the last 12 shows at this theater.
The show opens with a bang, as Jamie Victor belts out a fantastic parody of “On Broadway” (“In Denmark”) in which she brings us up to speed on what’s going on: Prince Hamlet’s father has died, and his brother (Hamlet’s uncle) has married the queen. Hamlet (Paul Thomas Murphy) is upset by this, and he soon learns, thanks to a visit from his father’s ghost, that the new king, Pernicious (Ben E. Millet) — it’s Claudius in Shakespeare’s version — was responsible for the old king’s death. Hamlet vows revenge and gets into an even deeper funk.
So far, the plot is pretty close to the original. This being the Desert Star Playhouse, though, our heroes need to be black-and-white, with no gray areas. So Hamlet can’t kill Boloneus (Gordon Johnson) (I know, it used to be Polonius), even in a fit of rage. Instead, Pernicious the Bad Guy does it and frames Hamlet. Also in this version, Ophelia (Julie Ann Christensen) doesn’t die, nor does Queen Gertrude (Lynda Robyns), nor does Hamlet. And the ending is definitely a happy one, complete with a group hug — quite a departure from the death-filled Shakespeare. (The show freely admits its alterations in the closing number, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”)
The show is full of non-stop laughs, thanks largely to Murphy’s performance as Hamlet. He is understated, almost subtle — rather unusual for the broad Desert Star — and his expression indicates he knows as well as we do that the show is nuts.
Assisting him tremendously is Scott Holman, who plays Horatio. The two make a great comic duo, especially in the hysterical graveyard scene involving Yorick’s skull — one of the funniest single scenes I’ve ever watched.
And though her character is somewhat in the background, Jamie Victor’s Helga — the minstrel who comes to sing for the royal court (instead of the full acting troupe in Shakespeare’s version) — is delightfully funny. Victor has a huge lunatic grin on her face much of the time, and she’s got more energy than an atom bomb. Watching her bounce around is sheer joy.
As mentioned, there are some typical Desert Star-style jokes here, the kind where they walk up to you and smack you in the face with them. To wit: “You can trust me. I’m as trustworthy as the president of the United States!” (Get it?!) But there are also some legitimately clever parts — many of them, in fact. Like this exchange, dealing with an air-headed character: “I’ve never been so insulted!” “Sure you have, you just didn’t get it.” Or the song sung just before intermission, to the tune of “That’s Entertainment”: “Make a call on your cellular phone/Move your car from the handicap zone,” etc.
In all, “Hamlet: This Ain’t Exactly Shakespeare” is fast-paced, loopy fun, full of energy and zeal and one joke after another. You don’t have to know the original show to appreciate this parody; all you need is a sense of humor. They don’t come much funnier than this.
I wasn't kidding when I said this was the best of the shows we'd seen here, although I did mis-count: This was our 11th show, not our 12th. So I can't count; shut up.
There was a harrowing moment at the end, though, when we got the bill for our food (this is a cabaret-style theater, you'll recall, and you can have pizza and desserts sent right to your table). Each of the 10 previous times, we'd gotten our food for free because I was the reviewer -- a nice little gesture the theater makes. Well, this time, the bill didn't say "complimentary" at the bottom. Instead, there was a $35 total. We thought, Oh man, the gravy train is over. But I had a word with the waitress, who hadn't realized the theater's policy with reviewers (or didn't know I was one), and all was resolved with very little ugliness.