It takes nerve to write a sequel to an immortal classic: generally speaking, if it ain't broke, why fix it? Rushing in where angels fear to tread, Lee Blessing (author of Eleemosynary, Independence, and A Walk in the Woods) has written Fortinbras, a play that refuses to admit that "the rest is silence." In the spirit of Tom Stoppard's much-superior Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Blessing's "metaphysical farce" dares to imagine a life beyond Hamlet--after the four corpses that litter Elsinore Castle at play's end are carted off and young warrior Fortinbras interrupts his endless conquest of Poland to assume the morally bankrupt throne of Denmark.

In Blessing's follow-up, Fortinbras is a no-nonsense, take-charge, all-American type, the go-getter Hamlet could never be. His first job is damage control: with philosophical Horatio as his reluctant adviser and the pliant, opportunistic Osric as his stooge, Fortinbras invents a "historical reason for being"--that is, a myth to give him legitimacy. Believing that "nothing's true until it's certified," he launches a PR campaign to gloss over the ugly truth of his succession, inventing a story in which a Polish spy engineered the downfall of the Danish royal family. Though Horatio, who promised the dying Hamlet to tell his story, wants to broadcast the unpleasant truth, Fortinbras prefers to pursue without hassles his mindless world conquest.

As you'd expect in a reductio ad absurdum sequel to Shakespeare, pesky ghosts continue to harass the living, and various calamities produce more ghosts. By the end they number nine (everyone but soldiers Marcellus and Barnardo). Each seems obsessed with the unexpected uniqueness of his or her own death. Ophelia, who's discovered that "women don't reach sexual peak until after they're dead," has been transformed into the mantrap she never was in life, lusting for both living Fortinbras and dead Hamlet. Convulsed with guilt, Gertrude and Claudius only want to die over and over, though of course now they can't.

Indecisive Hamlet is trapped in a TV set (a video bit cleverly integrated with the live action); oddly, when he finally bursts out he still seems to have two dimensions, especially as he drearily rehashes with Ophelia just what went wrong. Polonius, afraid to speak because he now knows how little he's heeded, is bored by the uneventfulness of death, though he's curiously fascinated by the moment of his death, his life's most memorable occurrence. Mousy Laertes seems paralyzed by thoughts of incest with his sister, which come to him after he dies.

By the end, the once-decisive Fortinbras is as mired in ambivalence as Hamlet was. Far better, Blessing implies, to be a ghost, where all action is past and you're beyond all hope.

Unfortunately, unlike Stoppard's spoof, little of Fortinbras has a life apart from Hamlet. After a fitfully promising first act, the play runs out of steam fast; much of the second act is downright tedious, as Blessing falls back on thematic bits that don't connect or progress. The author seems almost paralyzed by the profusion of themes he picks up, failing to pursue any of them, and their clashing claims kill the comedy. The play alternately explores whether anyone really wants to hear the sordid truth about Elsinore (a point on which the ghosts are extremely inconsistent), Fortinbras's unsought and unstoppable military victories, the lies governments tell to cover their crimes, the parasitism of the dead on the living, and the alleged preposterousness of Hamlet. It recalls nothing so much as a well-written collegiate parody, a sort of Fifteen Characters in Search of Shakespeare.

A local premiere by Interplay, Marc Rosenbush's lackluster staging inhabits a limbo even greater than the one the ghosts occupy. With a glacial pacing that's very unplayful and a stiffness that leaks out almost all the fun, this production creates only sporadic flashes of humor that never build. Fortinbras just breaks up into stage business, most of which misfires miserably.

As written, Fortinbras requires a comic deadpan that Michael Nowak, too serious an actor for this stand-up role, can't provide. Like many here, Nowak just looks lost onstage. The supporting roles--no laughfests themselves--can't make up for that, though Michele Messmer's hard-bitten Ophelia, Robert Toombs's bittersweet lapdog Osric, and Mark Mysliwiec's doggedly loyal Horatio certainly try. Ophelia's costume (designed by Caryn Weglarz), which features a frog trapped in her netting, is as funny as any line in the play.

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