The prolific Duncan Pflaster’s new Shakespeare-inspired The Tragedy of Dandelion, written entirely in iambic pentameter and set in a mythical Britain of yore, begins promisingly, with witty dialogue and a plot setup that cleverly winks at you. I imagined during the first handful of scenes that the play would turn out to be a smart, maybe even profound riff and commentary on themes and commonplaces of Shakespearean theater.
A production of Twelfth Night by New York City’s redoubtable all-female troupe, The Queen’s Players, and the bard’s propensity to craft tales of cross-sexual disguise inspired Pflaster to create this story of love and hidden identities, in which a cast of 10 women play some 30 male and female roles. The first four scenes (which constitute the first of five, or should I say V, Shakespearean “Acts”) take place in Queen Alice’s palace, where a Prince and Princess find themselves in a complex love triangle with a mysterious visitor called Dandy who declares himself the son of the Queen’s enemy, King Sebastian.
Ministering to the royals is a Fool, a jester named Josser who spins out deliciously clever punning lines, some of which are, alas, lost in Erin Nelson’s prancing, herky-jerky delivery. Still, the script and, for the most part, the performances gel during this segment, especially Kelly Zekas’s innocent and funny Princess Cèlie.
Alas and alack, it all falls apart thereafter. The acting, the writing, and the direction all turn klutzy, boring, and soon enough – it pains me to say – unbearable. Once the action departs from the royal halls and enters the woods, where three unconvincing ruffians fail to provide the intended comic relief, the narrative jams up, and the hold the characters began to have on us rapidly vanishes. Nothing can bring it back, not an order of naughty nuns, nor a battle scene, nor a religious conversion, nor an attempted rape, nor a touching death scene at the end – I’m giving nothing away, it’s called a “Tragedy” – which is far too little, far too late.
My guess is that Pflaster had too many things he wanted to say about our society and that of Shakespeare’s time, and concocted a plot that included them all but is much too unwieldy to contain and direct the undeniable way with words he has when he’s in control of his material. No accumulation of gender-busting plot twists and subversive or assumption-challenging images (a swashbuckling pregnant woman, a valiant Fool in love) can make up for a dearth of well-played, engaging characters.
One performer, for a reason that was not explained, was reading from a script, and painfully haltingly at that. It served only to emphasize the misbegotten nature of the bulk of this overlong and flaccid effort, despite its smart and promising first segment.
I applaud any effort to create new work using Shakespearean language and of Shakespearean scope, and admire anyone with the ability and persistence to write a full-length play in iambic pentameter. But alas, this consummation was not one devoutly to be wished.