Avoice on the answering machine calls through the darkness, congratulating an actor on his performance in Hamlet. Lights up on actor in doublet, pantaloons and hose, with a thick black wig and gun held to his head. ''I have of late lost all my mirth'' he intones and for the next hour solo performer Michael Hurst displays a comedic tour de force of mighty mirth, brilliant timing, stunning slapstick pratfalls, hilarious parody and knockabout characterisation as he deftly switches between Hamlet and visitors to his dilemma: a cussing, pugnacious Macbeth, a frail and deluded Lear and the obsessive Othello.
On first impressions, Frequently Asked Questions smacks of undergraduate humour. Creators Natalie Medlock, Dan Musgrave and Michael Hurst cleverly construct a script that segues between familiar Shakespearian quotations as Hurst assumes the Bard's popular tragic characters and the contemporary idiom of the actor. Anachronism lends emphasis to Hamlet's indecision, Macbeth's defiance and Othello's plagued mistrust of women.
Audiences will delight in Hurst's performance that defies Hamlet's advice to the Players. He is a brilliant clown, mercurial in his assumption of character and a gift to ''the groundlings who are capable of nothing but dumb show and noise''. In their absurdity, his characters do not ''suit the word to the action and the action to the word''. His performance ''o'ersteps the modesty of nature'' into the realm of melodrama and perfectly contrived ham.
At the end we are left with the Macbeth actor's puzzled question, ''What the FAQ was that all about?'' A troubled Hamlet, wondering ''What a piece of work is man''? A tormented actor, overwhelmed by the enormity of his role? A slight and silly piece of nonsense or a most cleverly conceived work veiled by a surface of spoof but occasionally lifting the veil to reveal the universal substance of Shakespeare's vast humanity?
Serious minded Shakespeare scholars may scoff at the frivolity of Frequently Asked Questions' treatment of Shakespeare's multitude of portentous questions factual or questions rhetorical , but the play's tempo allows for occasional moments of contemplative reflection when Hurst demonstrates his fine prowess as an interpreter and performer of Shakespeare's characters.
Even in our moments of mirth we are left with the question that confronts us all, ''What is this quintessence of dust?''
Familiarity with Shakespeare's text may heighten appreciation of the ingenuity of this work, but Hurst's performance alone will be enough to have you chortling in your chair or captivated by the actor's art.