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.
Parenti himself plays Hamlet opposite Gwenevere Sisco's luminous and earnest Ophelia, and does so with a light hand. This Hamlet, while not infirm of purpose, is not so weighted down with the tragedy of his life as he is sometimes portrayed - but it is clear that this Hamlet's more optimistic aspect comes fully from his relationship with this fleshed-out Ophelia. She is strong enough to bolster him when he would fall, and the prospect of their joint escape to Wittenberg to live a contented life together drives him from his first entrance until his final farewell with his love, knowing he must stay to rebuild his crumbled kingdom.
For her own part, Sisco's Ophelia rarely leaves the stage. One needs a strong actress of presence to carry this role that is equal parts the Ophelia we know, along with a handful of Beatrice, a sprinkle of Juliet, and of course a generous dose of Hamlet himself, and Sisco is more than up to the task. It is, in fact, hard to take your eyes off her. And it is to her credit that, even amidst the always-heartbreaking mad scene - a scene that we know in this context she is faking, following the lead of her absent lover - that she manages still to move us, as her voice cracks with surprised emotion, when she faces her heartbroken brother, newly returned on their father's death.
Ophelia isn't the only woman given more of a voice in this production. Horatio, refigured as a woman, and played with a Mercutio-esque bent of wit, passion, and loyalty by the dynamic Monique St. Cyr, serves as a faithful confidante not just to Hamlet, but perhaps even more so to Ophelia. It is she alone who knows the truth of Ophelia's escape, and she alone who remains to hold Gertrude accountable for her part in it. Sarah Eismann's Gertrude, too, has more agency here, if only a little. She is able to see through Ophelia's pretenses where she was not able to see through her son's. However, when asked to assist her would-be daughter-in-law as only another woman could, she washes her hands of the matter, steps back, and returns to the passive Gertrude we have known in productions past.
Reesa Graham directs the cast in seamless transitions, scene to scene, moment to moment, with Ophelia the constant nucleus to her various satellites (perhaps an unconscious callback to Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, another refocusing of Hamlet). Ophelia becomes so very much the center of the narrative, all other subplots excised, that when she does leave the stage after faking her death, the void of her absence is immediate and distracting. I found myself wondering why it mattered that I knew Laertes and Claudius were conspiring together, when I knew they would never again interact with our heroine. The focus does tend to drift at this point in the narrative, whereas it had before been tight and sharp. But when Ophelia returns to make her final farewell to Hamlet, unwilling to compromise her desires any further to allow for his need for revenge, there is a satisfying aura of completion - we had begun our story with an Ophelia lost, feeling walls of ice and cold holding her in. But she leaves, warm, happy, and carrying her own springtime metaphor in her [spoilers!].