Seeking to give Shakespeare’s character a voice in the 21st century that she traditionally lacks, Woodshed Collective’s Twelve Ophelias only muffles her words and confuses her intentions. In the play, Ophelia rises from murky waters to an unspecified place in the Appalachian Mountains, purportedly to fix the wrongs that have plagued her since she drowned out of Hamlet. Veneered with the supposed rickety idleness of country life, Twelve Ophelias considers humanity’s ability to change or make choices, vast concepts for Caridad Svich’s unruly epic script.
The text, with broadly vague life lessons like “Stories true bleed eternally. Counterfeit love wears brilliant conceit” mangle any development, making action stagnant and plot devices fruitless. “On the morn suddenly very brave the same song in a different larynx” and “Crème fraiche and strawberries… None of this chemical stuff, made up so you don’t even know what it’s made of, except it’s sweet and cools the mouth from all” sound less insightful and more like uncomfortable attempts at sophisticated profundity. Poetry in the mouths of mountain hicks mocks the flowery language and the rural culture simultaneously, discounting the unique simplicity of the regional speech while hustling imitation Shakespeare-like prose.
Grandiose in its presumption to voice country bumpkins with abstract platitudes, the text doesn’t support its isolated setting. McCarren Pool seems a perfect place for this wasteland of washed out characters: an empty basin where childhood has drained with the chlorinated water. The physical space, however, is too vast to be used affectively as a metaphor, leaving practically no backstage and too much air to fill. Forced onto microphones, the actors project as if they are on an indoor stage while competing with feedback to pick up their voices. Stuck between technical difficulties and open space trying to be contained, the audience has no choice but to sit take in this mumbled encounter with Shakespeare adaptation.
The script lacks clarity and focus, but the actors do nothing to flatter it. Rapid delivery and messy enunciation are only punctuated with predictable and pregnant pauses. Blocked in four main areas and garbed in a random costume-trunk combination of The Beverly Hillbillies and Pretty in Pink, the cast is underwhelming as a whole. The first scene on the dock between Ben Beckley (“H”) and Dan Cozzens (“Rude Boy,” named Hamlet by Ophelia), which could have revealed some kernels from the original, was marred by slurry accents and bland physicality. Rudimentary fight choreography rounded out a potentially valuable scene gone sour. Kate Benson (“Gertrude”), Grace McLean (“R”), and Preston Martin (“G”) overact and ham with the best. Jocelyn Kuritsky as Mina, H’s girlfriend, is left to interpret the only character not in Hamlet but takes her nowhere. Even the sexual energy between Cozzens and Pepper Binkley as Ophelia falls flat, with awkward kisses and a lot of rolling around, casting only the shadows of passion.
The music redeems what can be salvaged from this production. The Jones Street Boys, a modern bluegrass collective, composed music for Svich’s lyrics and set a buttery, comforting undertone to the production. The characters seem more genuine, if more awkward, by transitioning from speaking to singing, and the actors also seem to be in their best element while singing, even if their lack of vocal training shows. Perhaps the high drama of the script would fare better as a bluegrass/folk opera.
But Ophelia isn’t Ophelia.
Ophelia in this production has no resemblance to Shakespeare’s earnest, innocent girl. Binkley’s interpretation of the passive waif is full of lust, ambition, and words, all traits lacking in the original character. She is an Ophelia if she had been written in the 21st Century with a country twang, not an Elizabethan Ophelia set free to benefit from female empowerment. Within our post-feminist, post-modern analytic world, we view Ophelia as weak and a hindrance, not as a character of her time and a milestone marking how far we have come. Unfortunately, Twelve Ophelias brings us no closer to understanding Ophelia or relieving her of the historical burden placed on her frail shoulders.
Twelve Ophelias plays until August 23rd at McCarren Park Pool, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.