In the tradition of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, writer-director Ira David Wood III's Devon Does Denmark at Raleigh's Theatre in the Park takes a stab, so to speak, at going behind the scenes of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
This version, though, employs borscht-belt slapstick in place of wordplay and existential musings. Its intended audience seems less students of the Bard than those bored silly by the tragedy in high school. Your enjoyment of Devon Does Denmark may depend on which side of that divide you fall.
Told in two acts on two sets at around two hours, Devon ostensibly depicts Hamlet from the perspective of the actors performing the play-within-a-play designed to implicate Claudius in the death of Hamlet's father. In this case, they're a group of British players from Devon, led by the Shakespeare-hating Maurice (Tim Caudle), who find themselves on the shore of Denmark while Hamlet (Ira David Wood IV) has his existential crisis, Ophelia (Amanda Schulz Twiss) goes mad and Claudius (Michael Joseph Murray) plots against Hamlet. An ill-fated production and much poisoning ensue.
As we've said, this is less in the tradition of Stoppard than Monty Python; one of the players, Jesse Gephart's Reginald, looks like he stepped out of Holy Grail, and when he mentions the Spanish Inquisition, you expect someone to leap out screaming "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" Alas, this production never goes full Monty, as it were, but there is a Charlie Sheen "winning!" joke.
Bad puns and exaggerated personalities abound, while male characters have over-the-top effeminate accents—Claudius, for instance, sounds more like Capote. Often the characters stop reciting Shakespeare's dialogue to wonder what it means, or why they aren't just saying something simpler. It's all aimed at the cheap seats, although I admit I laughed when the elderly player Ludlow (Robert Kaufman) quipped, "Impotence is just nature's way of saying 'No hard feelings.'"
There's some good work being done here. Wood IV gives his Hamlet a nicely snotty quality that works even when he's dealing with lame gags about the origins of "To be or not to be." Twiss walks off with her scenes as a memorably loony Ophelia, while Lynda Clark's comic commitment salvages a potentially disastrous scene where her Gertrude engages in some quasi-incestuous baby talk with an actor she's mistaken for Hamlet.
Shakespeare fans won't get much out of Devon; in terms of the original plot, it's "little more than kin, and less than kind," to quote the source material. Those who like their farce broad and their characters silly will get a few good chuckles out of Devon Does Denmark, though if you're a scholar of Hamlet you might find yourself grumbling, "that it should come to this!"