[Reviewed by Bruce Roberts]
Hamlet’s Ophelia, a New Tale
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is a tragic figure. Spurned by Hamlet in his feigned madness over the death of his father, she goes genuinely mad after Hamlet mistakenly kills her own father. Grief-stricken, heart-broken, possibly pregnant, she falls in a stream and drowns, whether by suicide or accident has been the subject of Ph.D. dissertations ever since.
Now San Francisco playwright Darren Venn has rewritten her story in a new musical comedy/tragedy titled—what else? —Ophelia. I was fortunate enough to see a “Concert Reading” of this new musical last week at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and watched a very enjoyable show with lots of potential.
Though grounded in Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Venn’s imagination nonetheless leaves Shakespeare behind with invention after invention that extend and amplify Hamlet’s sometime girlfriend into the main character of this new tale. Played and sung powerfully by Melissa O’Keefe, Ophelia elaborates her Elizabethan original into a symbol of abused women throughout history.
Supporting Ophelia’s symbolic role are two masterful comediennes, Rebecca Faiola as Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s lustful mother, and Veronica Klaus as another of Venn’s inventions—Queen Elizabeth I of England, who plays a dignified, yet hysterically funny foil to Gertrude, and a sane anchor for Ophelia at the end. Both queens, besides being terrific singers, display expert timing, and facial expressions that leave the audience chortling—though by play’s end, Gertrude has morphed into a tragic figure herself.
With Brian Samuel King as Polonius, Venn shifts the character from Shakespeare’s bumbler, to a darker, more domineering and exploitative father for Ophelia, with definite hints of incest. King Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, has also moved from the original, emerging first as a comic foil to randy Gertrude, then suddenly a domineering rapist and warmonger toward the end.
In such a minimal cast, some players take more than one role. Cliff McCormick is a fine brooding Hamlet, but becomes Laertes halfway through, as Hamlet disappears to England. (Remember, it’s not Hamlet’s play anymore.) Similarly, Dominic Lim and Len Moors are backup singers who double as comic doctors for Queen Gertrude, rattling on about how Ophelia’s problems are all in her womb, not her mind.
And the backup ensemble—Rose Santillano, Destiny White, Liz Wand, supports all the players and Deidre Doyle—who sing beautifully to underscore the lead solos.
This is a funny play in many ways, but the underlying theme is that women throughout history have often been abused and ignored, manipulated by the more powerful men in their lives. Ophelia and Gertrude are clear symbols of this, but standing strong—and very funny—throughout—a symbol of hope and sanity for strong women everywhere—is Queen Elizabeth I. And as one of the most powerful figures in all of history, why not?
It’s unclear when this musical will reach the stage in full production. Like all new plays, it has some rough edges to polish away. But when it does achieve production, for an entertaining night of comedy, tragedy, wonderful singing, and witty dialogue, that puts many new spins on Shakespeare’s classic, treat yourself to Ophelia, by Darren Venn.