Sunday, July 13, 2008

Saturday Evening Theater at the McCarren Park Pool: Woodshed Collective's "12 Ophelias"

We've been staying mostly in Williamsburg lately, enjoying its midsummer pleasures: the Feast parades which passed the Dumbo HQ twice (Ringraziamenti per il pane!); the annual Crest Hardware Art Show (OK, we actually went Friday, because we'd blown a fuse and needed a replacement but we stayed for the aesthetic pleasure while our veggie burgers defrosted); a visit to the Leonard branch library; and relatively painless trips to the dentist and post office (we nearly fainted when we got our package just four minutes after arriving at 9:30 a.m.). Also some Italian ices from Ralph's and stoop-sitting and checking the progress of the figs in the backyard.

At 7:45 p.m. we walked up Lorimer Street to the pool, where a small crowd of strangely non-hipster-looking humans had gathered. They were there, as we were, to see 12 Ophelias, a play with lyrics by Caridad Svich and music written and performed by the excellent bluegrass band The Jones Street Boys. This was a preview of the production conceived and designed by the Brooklyn-based Woodshed Collective and directed by Teddy Bergman, who also did the famous Hell House, about the agonies that await the unborn-again.

The gates to the pool were locked at the play's starting time of 8:00 p.m., but we were soon let in as a young man started checking our names from a list of those of who'd made reservations. We didn't have any, but after three people were checked off, they let in all of us groundlings -- and we even scored one of the white folding chairs, which along with blankets anchored by rocks, surrounded an elliptical performance area in the middle of the pool, with the band and their instruments set up on a platform on the perimeter with the audience.

We were told that the night was only their second preview and glitches were to be expected. The main ones were with the body mikes, which worked sporadically at times for a couple of performers, but their voices carried well enough so that we, at least, heard them at all times.

12 Ophelias is a surreal take on Hamlet in which Ophelia (Pepper Binkley) rises from her pond, undrowned, and tries to deal with her past in a backwoods Appalachian version of Elsinore. Hey, they do say regional Appalachian English is the closest today's Anglophones come to the early modern English of Elizabethan times.

In this shantytown-Deliverance setting, trashy-flashy but regal Gertrude (Kate Benson) presides over a brothel; Rosencranz (Grace McLean) and Guildenstern (Preston Martin) are an antic genderqueer pair of silly hillbillies; Horatio (Ben Beckley) is a brutal, coarse backwoodsman sexually involved with the hooker Mina (an engaging Jocelyn Kuritsky) - and apparently Gertrude herself; and then there's Rude Boy (Dan Cozzens), a slovenly Ozarks Hamlet in a filthy wifebeater with a black eye and a lot of attitude.

This sounds like it could be either really terrible or really wonderful. We were a little concerned at first, but soon the performances -- and the surprisingly haunting songs -- shot it over into the "really wonderful" category. Shakespeare's language is both mocked (R & G do a deliciously wicked parody of the final meeting between the prince and Ophelia in Hamlet) and transformed so that, even with all the countrified expressions and Appalachian diction, it becomes eloquent in conveying the characters' struggle to reconcile past mistakes and burdens and in exploring the line between madness and passion.

We knew playwright Caridad Svich as a translator of Lorca, and the influence of the Spanish dramatist, along with that of Maria Irene Fornes, shows here. 12 Ophelias is also an interesting companion piece to Svich's rave fable Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That was Once Her Heart, which we know from its production at our winter home, Arizona State University, where we've taught English and been a graduate student in journalism. (The two plays are collected in one book you can buy at Lulu -- the POD service that Dumbo Books also uses.)

The cast was uniformly outstanding, with Binkley, McLean and Martin having some amazing moments; the musical performances by the cast and The Jones Street Boys,

when not hampered by sound-system problems, were strong; in addition to Bergman's direction, the creative team also includes Nicola Bullock (choreography), Gabe Evansohn (set design), Emily Fishbaine (musical director), Jessica Pabst (costume design), Adam Rihacek (fight choreography) and Jerad Schomer (lighting design).

According to its website, the mission of Woodshed Collective is to "create a tangible, immersive world" for audiences, by creating interactive performance pieces in which all members of the Collective are involved in "all aspects of production, from concept development to direction and design."

The pool will be host to more performances of 12 Ophelias at 8 p.m. on July 16, 18-19, 23-24, 26 and 30-31. August performances include Aug. 1, 4, 6, 8, 11, 14, 16 and 20-22. Setting this production in the middle of the empty pool as dusk turned to night worked really well. Last night was breezy and cool, and ultimately quite windy, but the billowing sheets of the set's shantytown seemed to fit the mood, as did the occasional sounds of firecrackers by the junior high behind the pool and motorcycles racing down Leonard Street.

As we walked home under a gibbous moon, we felt happy that we'd gone. Plus this great play was totally free! Isn't life wonderful!

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