Review: Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet by Southwestern University
by Michael Meigs

Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet is a lighthearted little romp that sends up both Shakespeare and the academic ivory tower with a mischievous feminist sense of humor.

Our heroine Constance Ledbelly is an undistinguished worker bee in the literature department of an unidentified university, where she has worked ably without recognition for her pompous supervisor Professor Claude Night. Her devotion to him is absolute but irrational, for he's a caricature of self-centered male vanity, interested principally in attractive female undergraduates and in getting his full professorship.

Jessica Hughes as Constance Ledbelly (ALT photo)


Connie has her own wild thesis about Shakespeare, one that will make or more likely break her already flattened career. She thinks that someone, somewhere, rewrote Romeo and Juliet and Othello to turn them into tragedies. All those deaths could have been avoided, if only there had been a truth-telling Fool to clear up the misunderstandings. She is toting around a copy of an undeciphered 300-year-old manuscript that she hopes will confirm her hypothesis.

That is, until the good Prof. Night dumps her and heads off to a well-paid post at Oxford with one of his bimbos. At that point either Connie has a serious psychotic episode or else she really does travel to the mystical worlds of Othello in Cyprus and then to the Capulets and Montagues in Verona. Plopped down into each intrigue at the crucial moment, Connie promptly clears up the misunderstandings, putting Iago into the doghouse and forestalling the duel in the piazza that triggers tragedy in Verona.



Jessica Hughes, Mchael Balagia (ALT photo)

Playwright MacDonald writes a witty scenario and some passable blank verse of her own when she's not swiping lines from elsewhere in Shakespeare. Our Connie becomes a character in the newly rewoven plots of each play and learns more than she expected. Desdemona turns out to be an Amazon in spirit, gifted with a rapier and as jealous as her husband; Romeo and Juliet have a serious case of postmarital blues, and both of them fall in love with our Connie, who is masquerading as a young Italian boy. It's a happy scramble.

Jessica Hughes gives the hapless Connie a golly gee-whiz attitude at the start, setting up for her various bumbling adventures of self-discovery. Hughes has a gawky grace like that of the young Shelly Duval, and she's a lot better looking. In Buried Child last semester she was all pinched, static straight lines; here, she has eyes rounded in wonder, a bobbing, eager gait and long limbs that tangle themselves up in her inattention. She's a funny foil for the Shakespeare characters and she draws our sympathy as the good hearted loser many of us imagine ourselves to be.

We do not really get much of that in her opening scene, though. She outlines her Shakespeare notions capably enough, but she remains fixed, eyes down on her manuscript, in the "office" platform set at the far back of the playing space.  Equally distracting is the feather pen stuck behind her ear and partially obstructing her face.



Michael Balagia as Othello . . .  (ALT photo). . . and as nurse to Juliet (Alexis Armstrong)



 The other four cast members play multiple roles, often with cross-dressing, which adds to the fun. Michael Balagia is the wicked professor, an emphatic lightly Latino Othello, a swaggering Tybalt and the incongrously bearded lady nurse to Juliet. Blondie Alexis Armstrong is a comic Juliet, eager for romance and death, in that order; MacDonald has Juliet sweet talking from the garden as Connie stands on the balcony.

Jayne Furlong is ferocious Desdemona and swaggering Mercutio. She has a good time of it and in some exciting passes of the foils proves herself just as well coached in fencing as her male colleagues. 

Zachary Carr as Iago (ALT photo)

 Diction is not always strong in the production, particularly when a character gets excited or emphatic. Blank verse either by MacDonald or by Shakespeare sometimes runs together in prose puddles.

By far the most accomplished in theatre speak is Zachary Carr, who plays Iago, Romeo, the Ghost, and the chorus. That's true even in the prologue, where for some reason director Mark Pickell has assigned him a cigarette to fiddle with as he admonishes us to suspend our disbelief. Carr is entirely credible, both as an Iago demoted to carrying slop buckets and as a Romeo who has decided to walk on the wild side with the Italian youth.

Zachary Carr, Jessica Hughes, Jayne Furlong (ALT photo)




Director Mark Pickell keeps the actors moving and uses some surprising and very funny bits of business. In some cases he has to do so. Paul Alix's set and its transformations must have looked terrific on the drawing pad, but in performance they present various obstacles and disadvantages.  Robyn Zumwalt's dramatic lighting helps cover these.  Pickell solves the scene shifts by sending his seven stagehands on in bouncy little scene-changing ballets for all the world like friendly Oompa-Loompas.  These consume time and break the rhythm somewhat, especially at the end when we sit through a lengthy change back to the university office -- for a final scene that seemed to last no more than a minute or so.

But maybe I'm beginning to growse like Professor Claude Night, whose preferred pastime was setting our Connie to ghostwrite scathing dismissals of his colleagues' work. I'd much prefer to be like Connie with her wild but almost plausible notions of the theatre or like this dedicated, lively and attractive cast working under the guidance of a director who's a '98 honors alum of the same program.




Click to view program for Goodnight Desdemona, Good Night Juliet by Southwestern University


Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet
by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Southwestern University

September 30 - October 04, 2009
Southwestern University
Sorghum School of Fine Arts
1000 E. University Avenue
Georgetown, TX, 78626