BWW Reviews: MAY VIOLETS SPRING: Elseworld Elsinore
William Shakespeare is notorious for writing fewer good roles for women than he did for men. Most assume that this was due to his all-male companies; the female roles would go to the younger and less experienced actors, as their voices wouldn't have changed yet. So although there are still a few meaty parts for women in his canon, many of the roles lack agency.
In his new verse play "May Violets Spring" James Parenti cleverly rewrites Hamlet to make Ophelia a central and more active character. He takes elements of what is occasionally subtext which can be inferred in Hamlet, and boldly makes it text, through original verse, shifting of lines to other characters, and occasional interpolations of sonnets and repurposed sections from other plays from the Shakesperean ouevre. But purists beware, This is not a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, "what you didn't see behind the scenes" type play that keeps strictly within the events of Hamlet; this is a radical reimagining of the story, placing Ophelia front and center.
In this alternate universe interpretation, Ophelia (Gwenevere Sisco) is the pregnant girlfriend of Hamlet (playwright Parenti); many of the lines usually given to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are here given to Ophelia and Horatio (also given more agency than usual, and here played as Hamlet's sensible lesbian BFF and confidant by Monique Yvonne St. Cyr), leading to some charming early scenes with the three buddies which almost play like John Hughes (kudos to Emily C. A. Snyder as Verse Coach). Ophelia, rather than being a shrinking violet is a modern young woman and, though lower-class, a mental equal to Hamlet, as well the mastermind behind the presentation of "The Mousetrap". Her scenes with Hamlet are even more fraught with tension when we have a new backstory, and she has even more unconventional ideas. Though I don't want to give away too much, Ophelia has taken on some of Hamlet's traditional tropes. There are other interesting conceits - to keep the cast small, Hamlet presses Gertrude and Claudius into reading their own roles in his "Murder of Gonzago", and Gertrude and Ophelia also get to have some non-canon alone time together, leading to some unexpected twists.
Rounding out the cast are Michael Griffin as Polonius, Mat Leonard as a powerful and boyish Laertes (who has an amusing running gag of entering wearing fewer clothes in each scene to show off his impressive physique), Sarah Eismann is a fascinating Gertrude, and David Bodenschatz is a solid and unusually perky Claudius. Sisco is luminous and deeply effecting in the lead. Ordinarily one would take a playwright to task for writing a plum role for himself, but Parenti is an excellent Hamlet, and the role is nearly ancillary to the plot in this version in any case. Reesa Graham directs in a simple and clear fashion, which highlights the text without distraction. It's a very interesting piece, though especially for Shakespeare afficionados, occasionally lends itself to a game of spot-the-quote which can be distracting. Highly recommended.
The play will run from Wednesdays-Sundays, April 16-27 at The Bridge Theatre in Shetler Studios, 244 W. 54th Street, 12th Floor. Tickets are $18 pre-sale, $20 at the door. $15 tickets are available for students and industry. Tickets can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets at http://mayvioletsspring.brownpapertickets.com
Pictured (from left to right) Gwenevere Sisco (Ophelia) and James Parenti (Playwright/Hamlet) Photo by Patricia Phelps.