Thursday, June 19, 2008


Photo/Carl Skutsch

Schoolgirls giggling in the wings. A fish tank of water. These are the postmodern tools that Aya Ogawa uses to dissect the tragic idea of Hamlet's Ophelia, a mad fragment of character drowning in a world passing her by. As a concept, the show works surprisingly well, with each of Oph3lia's three Ophelias adapting a distinct style, which Mrs. Ogawa deftly directs. As a play it is somewhat disappointing: characters lose themselves amid language, but this is fascinating only to an extent (more babble than Babel), and the comic tones are at odds with the somber theme.

We meet our first "Ophelia" in the middle of a slow anonymous drowning: Shizuka (Ikuko Ikari) has fled her love, Hiro--not because he's been cheating on her (he has), but because she found herself consumed by his intense personality. As Shizuka pantomimes her days in pedestrian traffic, surrounded by tightly pressing trench coats, her thoughts peal out in lush Japanese, translated into English with a silken superscript. The thoughts are beautiful, as is the imagery-- this thin, red leaf of a woman, swallowed up by the tan world around her--but it comes across a little bluntly: "I was just juxtaposing my self onto someone else's life, and pretending to live," she says, and it's only the Japanese that prevents it from seemingly wholly artificial.

The second "Ophelia," Cissy (Eunjee Lee), is--believe it or not--the only Asian girl at a Catholic school in Wuhan, and it takes only a few seconds for her to be targeted by the harsh ridicule of stereotypical teenage girls. As a closed off character, fumbling with the hem of her skirt and stumbling over her English, Cissy isn't very interesting, which is most likely why Ogawa paints these scenes up by having the class break out into quirky songs. At the same time, this is the most human of the Ophelia characters, a girl plunged into a world over her head by an ambitious father, easily excited and endearingly shy.

The final "Ophelia" is a nameless translator, played by Maureen Sebastian, which serves to show us the selfless (in both ways) idea of this lost girl. At first, Sarah (Hana Kalinski) can't even find the right conference room to put her in; then, when she joins the conversation, she disappears into the dialogue between two business-oriented producers and a Spanish playwright, appearing only long enough to take abuse as the unfortunate middleman in a game. Ogawa's choice to use a rotating wall emphasizes these choices: the set is constantly redrawing itself, just like the rules of Ophelia's world keep changing, until she is too deep in right field to stop the damage.

There's much to admire in Oph3lia, most notably the way in which Ogawa projects a crucial yet often glossed character into three fully distinct dimensions. Her ability to interweave criticism of the arts into a real dissection of an idea does wonders for the script: watch Jy Murphy's Mr. Eric Pratt attempt to teach Hamlet to these schoolgirls, or Drae Campbell's Andrea lob her opinion--on how theater needs to be shocking to be marketable--on Jorge Alberto Rubio's equally defensive playwright. And the different shifts in tone do succeed, ultimately, in creating a sort of schizophrenically funny scherzo. But with such precise madness, and patient explication, Oph3lia ends up missing the most important part of the show: Ophelia herself.

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