Drowning Ophelia: A New Rock Musical
nytheatre.com review by Mary Beth Smith
February 26, 2012
Hamlet is one of the most produced of Shakespeare's play in this country. Companies perform it for both its difficulty and audience appeal. However, some feel as though it is overdone or even irrelevant (gasp!) for today’s social media savvy audiences. For those people that feel Hamlet has no place in modern theater scenes for them, in steps RIFF Theater Company’s musical Drowning Ophelia.
This modern adaptation of the classic takes us through the Hamlet story through Ophelia’s eyes. We catch up with Ophelia in Purgatory where she has been playing with her band the Clowns (Touchstone, Puck, and Feste) for the last 410 years, all the while mourning the disappearance of Hamlet, who did not join her once he died. The Clowns have obviously heard about her loss more times than they can count and attempt to discourage her from bringing it up at this, their farewell concert. But Ophelia cannot be discouraged. She loves Hamlet and is determined for everyone to hear the story of her heartbreak in hopes that this will bring Hamlet back from whatever pocket of Purgatory he has decided to hide in.
What this show does really well is the story of Hamlet. When we can get into the meat of the story it flies, using music to highlight the modern language that is coupled with some of Shakespeare’s best poetry. The music and lyrics by Zack Powell consistently set up each moment of the story Ophelia is telling with interesting musical compositions utilizing the entire cast abilities well. One of the most memorable moments occurs the first time we see Hamlet. He steps on stage and begins his “To be or not to be” speech as Ophelia, played by Eliza Morris, sings a gut-wrenching song. This, and similar moments, is the strength of the play itself.
The play falters, however, in the beginning by trying to set up the story. The strength and writing of Shakespeare’s story is so great that even the best playwrights cannot keep up and this production is no exception. Rather than listening to a young girl whine about the loss of Hamlet and how she’s tried her luck with a variety of other Shakespeare characters along the way, this show yearns to get into the journey of her relationship with Hamlet. The audience is not pulled into the story until about a third of the way through, but once we are the scenes play out in an unusual and interesting way. I would have preferred a more balanced approach to the text, using music as the dominant modern text and pieces of Shakespeare’s play as the dominant speaking text, but book writer/director JD Cannady chooses to use more modern language throughout as a way to make the story even more accessible.
Overall this production does a genuinely okay job at presenting Hamlet in a modern context through Ophelia’s eyes, but could benefit from a little more dramaturgical work as a whole. If RIFF Theater Company can work through some of the rougher spots in the text this show will be an entertaining, engaging, and ultimately heartbreaking musical about Ophelia’s version of this classic tale.