Ophelia rising

Ambitious Hamlet spin-off is both fun and frustrating

Ophelia (Erin Duffey) and her chorus.

Ophelia (Erin Duffey) and her chorus.

photo by sean chen

12 Ophelias, final performance, tonight, March 14, 7:30 p.m., at Wismer Theatre.

Wismer Theatre
PAC 135
Chico State

Prince Hamlet was not nice to Ophelia. Whatever interpretations one has of the characters and actions in Hamlet, there’s no mistaking that the crazy-making, dad-killing prince with mommy issues did in fact treat his would-be lover unkindly, contributing greatly to her mental slide toward ending her life in the “weeping brook.”

In Caridad Svich’s 12 Ophelias, the young Ophelia’s story gets a different ending, one that starts with her rising from the cold waters and coming back to life in the backwoods of Appalachia. And she has a score to settle with that misbehaving Hamlet. “It’s paying time. I feel it,” she says. “The boy will remember. I am on land.”

For the opening-night performance of the theater department’s first production of the spring semester, director William Johnson and his Chico State cast and crew surround that promising plot device with a good measure of energy and entertaining elements (including some great music), but unfortunately it’s mostly window dressing for what turned out to be largely a one-note performance; that one note being that Hamlet was a jerk and Ophelia is (sort of) not having it anymore. There’s really not much else to take away from the avant-garde semi-musical.

Underlining that one note was the play’s dialogue, which was a combination of Shakespeare-like heightened language with a touch of hillbilly vernacular and construction. Either of those elements has the potential to be tiresome in a contemporary play, but blending them together and having the players deliver the result with vaguely Southern accents just didn’t work. The actors did their best with it, heightening their voices to meet the theatrical nature of the language (but that just might’ve made things worse).

Joining Ophelia and Hamlet (back in the form of a leather-clad ruffian named Rude Boy) are other names from the past: Gertrude (as a whorehouse madam) and Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who go by H, R and G, respectively). And the story here is mostly just a series of verbal fisticuffs among various groupings of the characters strung together, the only narrative being Ophelia’s changing opinion of Rude Boy as they go back and forth and back and done.

Erin Duffey as Ophelia was most successful at rising above the noise. She had a great voice (both spoken and in song) and played the part as sort of a feral wolf-girl found in the wilderness, full of lust and anger, and was fun to watch as she made her way to and through Rude Boy with energy and courage.

While Ophelia got to branch out of her previous character, the once-complex Hamlet’s punishment seems to be that he be reduced to a blunt caricature. Murphy Mayer does fine in the role, but since rude is all he can be, well …

Nonetheless, there are several parts of the production to recommend. The music was fantastic. Songwriter Marcel Daguerre created a range of sounds with his original numbers (set to the playwright’s lyrics)—from beautiful, harmony-rich folk tunes to dark-sounding rock songs—that provided much of the play’s emotional impact. Local folk group The Railflowers (with help in spots from guitarist Dave Elke, violinist Joel Quivey and Daguerre on bass and drums) supplied the live soundtrack, and their airy, sweet-voiced version of Appalachian folk was pitch perfect.

And the singing by the cast matched up beautifully with what The Railflowers were doing offstage. Duffey’s rich voice was especially impressive, and the six women in the Chorus of Ophelias lived up to their name with flawless, goosebump-inducing accompaniment.

Scenic designer Daniel Schindler and crew also created a nice, simple scene with the stage at the center of the room being formed out of what looked like a giant boulder surrounded by a moat of a river that would reveal different characteristics with each lighting change. And keeping with the surreal nature of the play, hanging from the ceiling were trees with roots growing down below the lights and casting creepy shadows across the stage.

In the end, despite the moments of creativity and many inspired choices for this production, it was hard to get past the play’s rough delivery and the fact that it didn’t end up anywhere interesting.