David rates it:
Benevolent ruler is murdered by unscrupulous brother, who then marries his widow. Newly returned son of said murdered king is made aware of this by his father’s ghost, who incites him to avenge the deed. Son is deeply conflicted and plots vengeance, ultimately bringing about the death of nearly everyone around him, as well as his own.
These days, we’re born knowing this story. We see it acted out by everything from medieval courtiers to cartoon lions to Mel Gibson. And in this familiarity lies the humor and the appeal of send-ups like Herbie: Poet of the Wild West.
Billed as “Hamlet with spurs”, Herbie transposes the story into a rather cartoonish Old West setting, where whiskey flows like blank verse, Claudius (here rechristened “Dead Eyed Dan”) guns down his brother with a six-shooter, and the traveling players are recast as a Russian showgirl and her trained bear. All the while, we’re led through this world by Eddie the bartender – a character part Horatio and part Greek chorus – played with affable charm by Christopher Herring.
The script is liberal in its interpretation of Hamlet, to say the least. In fact, nearly all the pathos of the original is replaced by vaudevillian slapstick comedy. The jokes falter more often than they land, and at times the humor can be surprisingly crass, even given the setting. But Herbie can indeed be quite funny. A particular standout scene involves an argument between Herbie and the ghost of his father counterpointed by the, ah, coupling of his mother and uncle, which itself is illustrated by cartoon slides.
This is not to say that the play doesn’t provide the occasional moment of seriousness. A split-scene later in the show portraying the grief of Amelia (Ophelia) and Ugly Nelly (a character the play sardonically acknowledges has no equivalent in the original) does tug at the heartstrings, and there is some legitimate tension sustained during the final confrontations. But by and large these are the exception rather than the rule.
The somewhat mediocre script and often rough-hewn staging are mitigated, at least partly, by an all-around talented cast. Branda Lock as Amelia and Madeline Russell as Cowgirl (a lesbian cowgirl re-imagining of Laertes) are both excellent, and they double with brilliant comic timing as conjoined twins Rosie and Guilda. Bethany Hoffman portrays the aforementioned Ugly Nelly appealingly with dry humor, and is equally funny with Jim Epstein in the “gravediggers” sequence. And David Berkenbilt plays the trained bear with as much commitment as he plays Paul, Amelia’s boot-salesman father, and both performances come off beautifully for it. These are just a couple of the standouts, though; the cast doesn’t really have a weak link.
All told, this is spirited light fare with hit-or-miss gags and an energetic cast. Knowledge of Hamlet isn’t necessary to enjoy this show, but if you are a fan of the melancholy Dane, don’t go expecting a thought-provoking re-interpretation or homage. It’s a little more than kin, and less than kind.