Camenae Ensemble Theatre Company

at Boxer Rebellion Theater

There’s a thriving literary subgenre dedicated to reimagining books from the viewpoint of a minor character. Women writers often use the technique to comment on the marginalization of women in literature and in life. The classic example in fiction is Jean Rhys’s 1966 Wide Sargasso Sea, which reinterprets Jane Eyre from the perspective of the madwoman. More recent efforts include The Wind Done Gone, The Little Women, and Ahab’s Wife. These attempts are most successful when they take seriously the task of telling a new story about old characters, and least successful when the technique itself becomes the center of attention. In the opening pages of Ahab’s Wife Sena Jeter Naslund refers to a scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, thus evoking not the New England coast of Moby-Dick but Literature Land, where characters are mere shorthand for attitudes or periods and any phony thing might occur. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, her work stands on their toes.

Bryony Lavery’s Ophelia, now receiving its U.S. premiere in a strong production by the Camenae Ensemble Theatre Company, sits on the fault line between these two approaches. A comprehensive rethinking of Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view, it uses the conceit that she’s written a play within the play, staged after her death by the Player King and his company. Ophelia’s play concerns events occurring before or during the action of Hamlet but beyond the notice of its characters; notably new is the murder of Gertrude’s serving maid. Like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Lavery’s piece amplifies Hamlet’s theme–that things are not what they appear–providing alternative explanations for much of the conduct in the original. So far, so good; but when Lavery decides to introduce many of Shakespeare’s other famous women–Kate the shrew, Lady Macbeth, Goneril–she interferes with the fictive dream she herself has created, encouraging the audience to see her work as nothing more than a high-brow parlor game. Fortunately the visiting ladies are confined to a few puzzling scenes, and then we return to the “real” world occupied by Ophelia and her family–the one that matters, the one in which lives are at stake.

In form, at least, Lavery is more ambitious than Stoppard: like Shakespeare’s play, hers is a full-length work in iambic pentameter. Though Lavery wouldn’t be mistaken for Shakespeare, she shows herself an accomplished poet as well as playwright, conveying her views with subtlety and skill through the blank-verse dialogue. By the same token, though the feminist Camenae ensemble wouldn’t be mistaken for the Royal Shakespeare Company, its actors–particularly the women, who dominate the large cast–handle the verse with ease and clarity.

In Lavery’s retelling, Ophelia was the object of incestuous attentions from her brother, Laertes, while Gertrude was the victim of domestic violence at the hands of Hamlet’s father. These backstories cast the characters’ behavior in a new light: of course Gertrude would promptly marry the man who saved her from abuse; of course Ophelia would be desperate and indiscreet in seeking Hamlet’s love. Meanwhile a drowning other than Ophelia’s is the focus: Gertrude’s servant, Iras, is pulled from the water, her mouth and body choked with snakes (thank you, Dr. Freud). As the women of the court unravel the mystery of Iras’s death, they also uncover the corruption that’s rotting the state of Denmark. The ending provides a satisfying twist.

There’s no need, then, to introduce the other Shakespearean characters, who ostensibly come to Elsinore for Hamlet’s father’s funeral. These ladies argue with Gertrude and Claudius about whether arriving without their husbands is an insult, but the dispute is never resolved nor is its purpose made clear. Then they sit around the castle conducting themselves in characteristic ways–Portia studies, Goneril bitches, and Lady Macbeth bloodies something. Finally they leave without the audience ever understanding what they were doing there. Fortunately the main engine of the plot chugs along just fine without them, while the themes of women’s empowerment are perfectly well expressed by the actions of Ophelia, Gertrude, and Hamlet’s gender-bent friend Horatia.

Director Jennifer Shook brings well-paced order to what might easily have been chaos, as two dozen high-energy women appear on one tiny stage as if in response to some Chicago actresses’ full-employment ordinance. First among the excellent performers–and how rarely we get to see any of them used to their potential–is Gita Tanner: coiled like a spring, she makes an intense, powerful Gertrude despite her diminutive size. Sara Keely McGuire as Ophelia manages to be troubled and distressed while remaining the furthest thing from mad. Even the superfluous characters are a pleasure to behold; Alexandra Bennett’s Lady Capulet and Jenni Fontana’s Portia are particularly good. Sarah Puls and Sarah Levin make charming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern equivalents. The few men onstage have to scramble to keep up. Only Laertes (David Dastmalchain) really leaves an impression: embracing Ophelia, he evokes all of Jacobean tragedy, with special reference to ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

The iambic pentameter can wear thin, and various overstated metaphors make it clear how difficult Shakespeare’s seemingly effortless writing is. Lavery also relies too often on rhymed tags (“The play’s the thing / Wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king”), which Shakespeare wisely uses sparingly. But her plot construction is tight and her rethinking of a classic refreshing. And the young company bringing Ophelia and its author to our attention acquits itself extremely well.