Thursday, October 6, 2016

Margin Notes: May Violets Spring

Seen on: Sunday, 10/2/16.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
Briefly put (since brevity is the soul of reviewing), this is a reexamination of Shakespeare's Hamlet from Ophelia's perspective, with a few twists thrown in. A mix of language from the Shakespeare canon and original text by playwright James Parenti, May Violets Spring puts Ophelia front and center, showing us pieces of the Ophelia we think we know, and the Ophelia we never got a chance to meet. The play was previously workshopped with The Other Mirror and performed by Dare Lab. Turn To Flesh, a company dedicated to new verse plays, revives this show as the mainstage of their 2016 season.

What I Knew Beforehand, 
and Disclosure
I saw (and reviewed favorably) an earlier workshop of this play (as well as recently interviewed its playwright, James Parenti). I'm also good friends with director Emily C. A. Snyder.


Play: In my review of the Dare Lab production, I examined the question of culpability. With an Ophelia possessing greater agency than her source material counterpart, she therefore carries more responsibility for how events play out - particularly when plot points or ideas are given into her hands rather than Hamlet's (such as the idea of "The Mousetrap" play). While that was - at least to me - a dominant theme of the play at that point, it is less of a question now. It is clearer now how many of the bad turns in the plot are the result of Hamlet's recklessness, as contrasted with Ophelia's more measured approach to problem solving. In general, I would say there's an increase in clarity across the board, particularly in regards to other characters' responsibilities or shortcomings. Gertrude's position as the deceptively perceptive but coldly pragmatic would-be mother-in-law is clearly and unforgivingly etched, while Horatio's loyalty and instinctive empathy for her similarly-orphaned friend feels organic and earned. As for Hamlet, well - that boy needs to work on his impulse control. I am generally a fan of the deepened explorations of the characters I see in this new draft, although toward the end, the pacing starts to flag and I begin to feel the length of the piece. Still, the craft inherent in the writing of this play is high caliber and noteworthy, and I'm glad it's being given further life by Turn to Flesh Productions.

Cast: As I now take for granted at an Emily C. A. Snyder-helmed production, the cast is fluidly agile and completely comfortable in the world of verse, to the degree that I'd forgotten until writing this that I was taking it for granted. Cristina Madero brings a playfully warm earthiness to Ophelia, a young girl who doesn't yet know she's in a tragedy. Louis Sallan's Hamlet has an amusing balance of James Dean emo-angst and the doomed Danish prince we all know. Gabrielle Adkins's Horatio has a particularly striking presence - as the true orphan of the piece, she's constantly on her guard, and yet one feels she's the best ally any of our characters could ask for. While I admit a part of me misses the easy camaraderie and chemistry of the trio from the Dare Lab production, I can't individually fault any of these three players for a particular lack. Sandra Williams's Gertrude spends much of the first half of the play with little to do, but my god, does she slay in her final confrontation with the distraught Ophelia - this is a true queen who knows what sacrifices are needed to maintain order in her kingdom. Chris Rivera, Al Choy, and Joe Conway all do fine work in their respective roles of Laertes, Polonius, and Claudius, but there's simply less for them to do - they're chiefly the leftover pieces of Hamlet's world, necessary for plot - but they're so stuck in their court thinking, there's no space for them in the new world Ophelia is building.

Design: Speaking of that new world, let's talk about the sly narrative Emily Rose Parman builds with her intelligent and subtle costume design - starting with all characters in a sort of neutral contemporary wear - three piece suits for the men, a floral dress for Ophelia, a velvet jacket for Gertrude, a pantsuit for Horatio - all with garnishes, here and there, of the violet motif. And then, as the story progresses, so too do the costumes. It's subtle at first - maybe Gertrude's high-waisted corset skirt is just for watching the play - but the men's dress shirts are swapped out for blousier shirts of yore; and doublets, crowns, and daggers appear, unremarked. This costume narrative becomes so juicy - from Hamlet's making the choice to swap his peacoat for a doublet, to Ophelia's appearance in skinny jeans and blazer - I almost wish this modernization of Ophelia, contrasted against the Danish court's being left irrevocably in the past, saw manifestation somewhere else, as well - either the text or another design element. Samantha Elizabeth Turlington's set continues the violet motif with hanging drapes (including a neat trick, in partnership with Chelsie McPhilimy's lighting, that gives us some shadowplay when certain Claudiuses and Poloniuses are hiding behind certain arrases), as well as the harsh and unwelcoming stony ground that is the Danish court.


Running: Now playing at WorkShop Theatre (Turn To Flesh Productions) - Opened: October 5, 2016. Closing: October 22, 2016.
Category: straight play
Length: 2 hours, 10 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: James Parenti
Director: Emily C. A. Snyder
Designers: Samantha Elizabeth Turlington (Set), Emily Rose Parman (Costume), Chelsie McPhilimy (Lighting), James Parenti (Sound), Laura Pittenger (Dramaturg).
Cast: Cristina Madero, Louis Sallan, Gabrielle Adkins, Al Choy, Chris Rivera, Sandra Williams, Joe Conway.

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