PTD Productions' "Humble Boy" evokes "Hamlet" while also being funny
This my not seem an obvious time for a play titled Humble Boy -- ahem -- but Ypsilanti-based community theater company PTD Productions will be presenting Charlotte Jones’ award-winning 2001 comic drama at the Riverside Arts Center nonetheless.
“I love plays that are both funny and poignant at the same time, and this certainly qualifies,” said director Laura Bird. “The main character is grieving the loss of his father, but he’s also getting grief from other people about how he’s grieving. And this is a subject I’m passionate about -- that there’s no wrong way to grieve. ... Plus [the play] has these great characters, and flirts with Hamlet in a lighthearted way.”
The play’s focus is Felix Humble, a man who’s returned to his family’s English countryside home upon learning of his [father James’] death. His mother, Flora, has not only already sold her husband’s belongings, including his beloved bees, but also plans to marry a man that’s James’ opposite. This causes a rift between mother and son, and Felix struggles mightily with his feelings of loss, talking only with the unassuming, barely noticeable gardener, Jim.
Bird first encountered the play when the now-defunct Performance Network Theatre staged it in 2004.
“I loved it,” said Bird. “Right then it went on my ‘to direct someday’ list. But it’s a very long list, and it takes a while to cycle through.”
The play largely takes place in the Humble family’s garden, which can pose a challenge to set designers. Bird and team thus decided to take an unconventional approach to the look of PTD’s production.
“I’ve been working with designer Ryan Silvertree, and when we had our first design conference, I said, ‘This is not a realistic show,’ and I wanted the set to reflect that,” said Bird. “So we’re making the flowers in the garden out of paper, which is a massive undertaking, and then there’s also a forced perspective, with a honeycomb grid on the lawn and patio, so there’s an echo of this beehive theme. It’s going to suggest a lush country garden but also remind the audience, ‘This is a play.’”
And although it broadly draws inspiration from Shakespeare’s tragic tale of the Prince of Denmark, you needn’t be familiar with Hamlet to enjoy Humble Boy.
“[Jones] isn’t imitating Hamlet as much as she’s flirting with the tropes of Hamlet,” said Bird. “I’ve hesitated to mention the plays ties to Hamlet in press releases and interviews, but I’ve also been noticing, along the way, how well [Jones] integrates elements from it.” Even so, that’s not Bird’s main point of interest when it comes to Humble Boy. “I’m much more intrigued by the play’s structure, and how Charlotte Jones plants an idea -- pun intended -- and riffs on it,” said Bird. “The way she’s playing with different themes and ideas -- it’s almost like jazz.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.