May Violets Spring, by James Parenti (and William Shakespeare). Directed by Reesa Graham. Featuring Gwenevere Sisco, James Parenti, and Monique St. Cyr. Produced by Dare Lab, currently running at The Bridge Theatre through April 27th, 2014.
**Extended! Now playing at Joria Productions Theatre, April 30 - May 3.
Disclosure: This humble reviewer is friends with the lead actress, although she did not know that when she agreed to review this production. She'll try to keep objective, but it's hard when your friends are really talented.
"Am I to blame for all this blood now shed, or am I not, as I would fain believe, an instrument of those of stronger will?" If this were any ordinary production of Hamlet, the answer to Ophelia's cry of despair would be clearly that no, she is not overly culpable; she is a tool in the hands of strong-willed men - of her father, her brother, her erstwhile lover - a weapon they use against each other and against themselves. In Dare Lab's inaugural production, playwright James Parenti has capitalized on this dichotomous responsibility of Ophelia within the world of Elsinore with his deconstruction (or perhaps reconstruction) of Hamlet's story - this time from Ophelia's perspective. Parenti's Ophelia has a good deal more agency than Shakespeare's - helping Hamlet in his scheme to expose the murderous King, to fabricate Hamlet's madness, and to eventually escape Denmark for a quieter life. Such changes certainly make her a more interesting character, one with true strength and convictions, with ideas and creativity - but those elaborations come hand in hand with the culpability she later fears. This Ophelia is wise to the machinations around her, so when she submits to her father's instructions and rejects Hamlet's love in front of a listening Claudius and Polonius, or when she (spoilers!) fakes her own death in what she herself acknowledges could lead to Hamlet's real death, yes, there is some blood on her hands.
Parenti has taken liberties aplenty with his adaptation - not just supplementing Shakespeare's text with his own (a more or less seamless addition, though sometimes marred by too-contemporary sounding syntax, or a seeming purposeless shuffling of lines) - or doling out dialogue from other characters to Ophelia in scenes where she was formerly silent or absent. He's also borrowed, with a delicate hand, snatches of dialogue, here and there, from the entire Shakespeare canon. Rather than feel like a tiresome wink at the audience, however, these scraps of familiarity help guide us on our newly-lit journey down a old trodden path. So when Ophelia, hearing that Hamlet has slain her father, asks, "Can Heaven be so envious?" we feel, not just Ophelia's grief, but the echo of Juliet's as well.