HERE Arts Center & Knife, INC. have joined together to produce one of the most stunning and poignant pieces of theatre playing on a New York stage right now. HERE's newly renovated space is hip and comfortable, making a perfect home for this excellent production. When I first read the description of what this show was to be—a combination of different languages, movement, dance, songs, feminist undertones and multiple theatre pieces—I thought to myself, "Wow. This is either going to be a train wreck or absolutely brilliant." Those are the kinds of shows I like to see...and fortunately, Oph3lia is 100% the latter.
The performance has already begun as the audience enters the theatre. We are in a girls' Catholic School, located in China, but no Chinese children attend. This is a school of American and European girls, until a Korean girl, Cissy, joins the group. It seems there is a production that the students have assembled for us and we're here to watch. The principal and his right hand educator welcome us and thank us for coming, "despite all the craziness outside." We are about to hear a story. In fact, we are about to hear three of them.
Oph3lia is divided into three sections. Besides Schoolgirls in China: define home, there are New York: mute, memory and New York: I can't hear you (in a world of noise, words mean nothing). They flow together like rivers joining, shrewdly, beautifully and intentionally, they collide and immediately meld. Each piece represents a multitude of the elements that make up the character of Hamlet's "Ophelia," and the layers seem endless.
New York: mute, memory depicts a Japanese woman, Shizuka, in New York. She moves here to escape her past and dissolve into the background. As she struggles to learn English and change into the type of woman to which America responds, she breaks down and makes the decision not to speak any language, ever again. The rat race of a rush hour subway commute is depicted with staggering clarity through costuming (a shiny red raincoat in a sea of beige overcoats) and choreographed movement. The tragedy herein is her need for connection, without speaking.
Then in New York: I can't hear you (in a world of noise, words mean nothing) the audience is introduced to a couple of theatrical producers who have set their sights on a new Hispanic playwright, Pablo, and are anticipating a meeting with him with the help of a translator. Fortunately for the audience there is a comical mix up and the translator is missing, forcing the producers and this new foreign playwright along with his "muse" to do business through scattered knowledge of one another's languages. The timing in this scene is spot on and constructs a very clean comment on how language can be meaningless and vital simultaneously. At one point I thought, "Yikes. I sound just like that yammering producer. I need to shut up."
In every section there is a language barrier, a need for human contact, and a foreigner in a place they do not seem to fit. There is also, at the center of each piece, an Asian woman. Shizuka is played masterfully and in almost complete silence by Ikuko Ikari; Cissy is performed with so much heart it is almost painful by Eunjee Lee; and the Translator is interpreted with astonishing grace by Maureen Sebastian. Although these three women seem to be the focal points, taking on that story's "Ophelia," the play is ultimately no more about them than it is about anyone else. Oph3lia isn't just about being foreign. It isn't just about being a woman. It isn't feminist. It isn't antifeminist. This is about being lost, being manipulated, being torn, confused, needy, misunderstood. It is about being human and all the elements that make us human. It is about those times when an individual is surrounded by people and still feels entirely solitary, a feeling that is very prevalent in New York.
Writer/director Aya Ogawa has assembled an amazing cast and crew. Each member of this seamless ensemble is at the top of his or her game. And it really is a joint effort. The combination of set, costume, lighting, and sound design compliments the onstage performances in a way that makes an audience member forget that they are separate. The video elements by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew are absolutely worth mentioning. Jellyfish float across the background, ghostly figures that are impossible to touch. The presence of these creatures is perfect commentary for the complex beings who exist in front of them and those beings' need for contact. This is the kind of show that reminds an artist why they are what they are.
Standout performances are difficult to note, because there truly is no weak link in this ensemble. Jy Murphy's interpretation of Mr. Pratt, the new, hopeful, young English teacher who seems to really love to educate and appreciates each girl on an individual level, is lovely—he's easy to watch and becomes the teacher that all of us wanted throughout our own education and made me think of the first moment that I realized that teachers didn't live at the school, but were actual people with flaws. Hana Kalinski is also someone to keep an eye on. She has excellent energy and plays her multiple roles with intoxicating charm.
What Ogawa has done is create an analysis of humanity through communication and language from a character created by a man who frequently designed his own language and is frequently misunderstood. This is a smart, beautiful, and touching production that is unpretentious and fun. I left feeling humbled and inspired, reminded why I love theatre the way I do. Do not miss this show, and once you see it, tell everyone you know.