by Charlotte Jones
Playhouse Theatre
January 29-February 19
604-873-3311 or 604-280-3311

To bee or not to bee . . . Punning on Hamlet at every turn, English playwright Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy transforms Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy into a very funny domestic dramedy. The melancholy Dane becomes a stuttering 21st century astrophysicist, his dead father a beekeeper, his mother a bee-itch. Glynis Leyshon’s Playhouse production sparkles with a first-rate cast led by the incandescent Fiona Reid.

Hamlet is Felix Humble (Dean Paul Gibson), a tense, overweight researcher called home from Cambridge for his father's funeral. He finds his self-obsessed mother Flora, played with wonderful comic insouciance by Reid, more concerned with her recent nose job than her husband's death. He sees appalling businessman George Pye (Norman Browning) buzzing around his less-than-mourning mom.

Making matters worse, George's daughter Rosie (Megan Leitch) and Felix were once an item. Her appearance at the wake opens old wounds. Better at dealing with theoretical physics than mundane facts, Felix in despair threatens to shuffle off this mortal coil by strangling himself with a rubber hose but is saved by the rock-steady gardener (Peter Millard).

Although Felix expounds on super-string theory the way Hamlet broods on Renaissance metaphysics, Humble Boy is at heart a play about family. And the mother, not the boy, commands centre stage. From her opening line, "I'm not angry, Felix, I am in-can-descent with rage," Reid absolutely nails queen bee Flora. A star in Toronto, Reid rarely works out west. It's a special treat to hear her deploy Flora's delicious sarcasm with that exquisitely modulated voice that slices through Felix's broken heart like a laser through butter.

Managing the daunting task of holding his own with her, Gibson does excellent work as Felix. And though he teeters on the edge of comic caricature, Browning makes George a convincingly vicious antagonist. The guy literally pisses on Felix's father's ashes.

Set designer Pam Johnson renders the overgrown garden of the Humble home in beautiful pastels, a fallen paradise (based on Hamlet's metaphor of the world as an "unweeded garden that grows to seed") where dad once pursued his passion for bees and the adulterous snake George now pursues Flora.

Two or three false endings and a cheesy fight take some of the wind out of Humble Boy, which has a little of the generic, made-for-the-West-End quality of English commercial theatre, not least in the soft landing Jones ultimately gives her characters in place of the devastating collapse of Hamlet's world. But it is a comedy after all, and a good one. This play's the thing even without a tragic sting.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, February 8, 2005 2:09 PM
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