Quite a lot works in this production. In fact, only one element fails, and unfortunately for this very talented cast, it's that most critical of elements—the script. Playwright Allan Byrns may well have written this tale of Shakespeare trying to find the finish for Hamlet long before Tom Stoppard and company came up with the film Shakespeare in Love, but Byrns' work does not bear up well in the comparison.
It's the night before the opening of Hamlet, and playwright Will (Mark Clifton) still hasn't found just the right ending for his new play. While the players aren't thrilled, they aren't terribly worried, either. Their biggest concern is helping out the budding love affair between servant Jennie (Summer Isreal) and Herbert, Jr. (played on the night reviewed by Keith Gaytan). It's an affair that should be complicated by the fact Junior and his father, Herbert, Sr. (John Duncan) have made their living by playing women, but it isn't. Two gay actors in the company are James (Matthew St. James) and Elyard (played on the night reviewed by Charles Woodruff). In fact, the big conflict of the play's ending has actually been resolved as the second act begins. So Byrns adds a new subplot: James' explosive jealousy over Elyard. Because the course of love can ne'er run smooth, Byrns also invents weak disagreements for the two young lovers to argue over, also quickly resolved. There is absolutely no suspense, no dramatic build—just pleasant ambling.
It is unfortunate, for this is an excellent cast. Gaytan's initial scenes were a tad rocky, but once he settled into his assumed role (he normally plays Elyard), he carried off the young lover quite well. Sean McEwen as Richard Burbage is a tad mush-mouthed but still pulls off the grand "actor" beautifully. Thia Stephan, playing Anne, the good-hearted whore, manages to get past the cliché and provides some real depth. But she is particularly failed by the script. Byrns first implies that Anne wrote the ending, then pulls the rug out from under us when it becomes clear that Anne really only wants to go onstage in spite of the interdiction. There's nothing wrong with surprise, but it has to be set up. So, Stephan, after working so hard to create a lovely real person, gets sacked with a rather lifeless cutout in the end.
Still, the best performance of the evening is Clifton's. Burdened with a script that has him going first in one direction, then another, Clifton still brings clarity to his role. His character doesn't take himself too seriously, but Clifton also is commanding and confident, even when Will is at his most frustrated.
Teresa Wolf's costumes are beautiful, and Will's doublet looks remarkably like the one in the famous engraving from the First Folio. Director Karesa McElheny keeps the pace going at a nice clip and uses the space wonderfully. Also enjoyable were the several sword fights, choreographed by Frank Moran. In fact, there is little about this production that did not work well. Except for the script. And Will was right. The play is, indeed, the thing.
"Trumpet to the Morn," presented by and at The Knightsbridge Theatre, Pasadena, 35 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. Fri. 8 p.m., Sun. noon. Sept. 1-Oct. 15. $12-18. (626) 440-0821.