A Shakespearean fable rewrites the story of our lives

Constance (Delta Giordano) watches as Desdemona (Anna Sundberg) says goodnight to Juliet (Nicole Devereaux)

Constance (Delta Giordano) watches as Desdemona (Anna Sundberg) says goodnight to Juliet (Nicole Devereaux)

Theatre Unbound at the Neighborhood House through April 27

It's no huge secret that the narratives of our lives spring as much from our own authorship as from the nicks, scrapes, and fleeting validation that the world provides. The trick, of course, is to make our stories happy ones, to resist the perverse tug of the tragic. Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) plays out this struggle in the realm of the mythic, tackling the intersection between the universal and the everyday that runs through the fable of our existence.

The play itself is 20 years old, and it shows its age; it's of a time when tidy deconstructive connections were the coin of the intellectual realm. The early action concerns downtrodden junior lit professor Constance (Delta Rae Giordano), who plugs away at a thesis about the lack of tragic legitimacy surrounding our titular Shakespeare victims. For Constance, the threads of their undoing seem more like comedy, and their stories lack only a truth-telling fool who could have set matters right.

Things are all a matter of perspective, in other words, though you get the sense that Constance is going to take the long way around to figuring it out. Soon enough we meet her boss (Rick Logan), who has made a career out of appropriating the fruits of Constance's intellect while stringing her along romantically. Matters crash down on our heroine when this senior prof announces that he's off with his lover to England, leaving Constance jobless and in possession of a literary theory viewed as naive and deluded by the old-boy academic guard.

At this point the play takes a (welcome) turn for the fantastic, but it's worth noting how enjoyable these potentially dry and arid scenes have been so far. Much credit is due to director Genevieve Bennett, who keeps the tone loose but confident, funny yet resisting the pull of farce. Giordano, in a completely fetching performance, plays Constance as brainy but self-thwarting, afraid of the passions to which she is entirely enthralled, famished for self-realization but unable to imagine its contours.

Constance disappears into a cardboard box on her desk (trust me, it happens), and is subsequently transported into the realm of the unconscious, first showing up when Iago (Nicholas Crandall) is turning Othello (Logan) against Desdemona (Anna Sundberg). Constance points out that Iago is a lying rat, which changes the story entirely. She becomes a favorite of the Moor, then of his wife, although in time Desdemona turns out to be as volatile and bloodthirsty as her spouse.

Next Constance intervenes in Romeo and Juliet, stopping Tybalt (Logan) from killing Mercutio (Sundberg) and ensuring that the young lovers live to love another day. The catch is that they are soon passionately sick of each other, and Romeo (Crandall) falls in love with Constance, thinking she's a young boy, and Juliet (Nicole Devereaux) emerges as a death-obsessed romantic of a decidedly morbid stripe.

Here matters do descend into farce, quite intentionally, and to good effect. Sundberg is a lusty hothead as Desdemona unleashed, and Devereaux is a heaving, mercurial wall of self-destruction in Juliet's unwritten next act. Giordano hits a deft tone between the two, entertaining moments of seduction, engaging in swordplay, and generally convincing us that her formerly tentative victim is finally figuring out a thing or two for herself.

You get a sense that MacDonald promises more than she delivers, but this production smartly treats the fantastical elements as a romp, then settles into an insight that fails to rattle the earth but sits nicely nonetheless: If all the stories we tell are ultimately about ourselves, then best to cast ourselves as heroes rather than hapless victims of circumstance. If all the world is a stage, in other words, best to play it with passion, intensity, and as much truth as you can grab. After all, it really isn't academic in the slightest.