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Theater Preview: 'May Violets Spring'

by Photo of Paul Hansen

James Parenti’s drama presents a new perspective on ‘Hamlet’

The current year was inevitably destined to be a major event in the field of Shakespeareana, as 2016 is obviously the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s passing. As we enter the home stretch of this milestone year, Turn to Flesh Productions is presenting “May Violets Spring, A New Story for a New Ophelia.” The play is an adaptation of “Hamlet,” which imagines the drama with Ophelia (Hamlet’s lover) as a more central and forceful protagonist in the drama.

There have obviously been other reworkings and adaptations of Shakespeare’s play, with Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” probably being the most obvious example. Three years ago on this site I wrote a review of “Elsinore County”, a parody of “Hamlet.” To this day I remember the performance as being a very funny and spirited evening at the theater.

I recently conducted interviews with two members of the “May Violets Spring” production – James Parenti, the author, and Cristina Madero who is playing Ophelia.

As I began the interview with Parenti, we discussed the fact that in Shakespeare’s original text, Ophelia is portrayed as a sympathetic if rather weak character. She is dominated and often manipulated by the men in her life, including her father, her brother, Hamlet’s stepfather and Hamlet himself. Parenti and I discussed the fact that Ophelia’s clearly subordinate relationships with men were almost certainly typical for women in the late-Renaissance, unless of course you happened to be Queen Elizabeth I.

Parenti stated that he wanted to present a version of “Hamlet” in which Ophelia was presented in more proactive, commanding terms. Parenti mentioned that as we are in the midst of an election in which a woman may quite possibly be elected President, a play which shows a forceful Ophelia (particularly in the political realm of Hamlet’s court ) is of course timely.

As an example of Ophelia’s more vigorous presence, in Parenti’s text Ophelia suggests the idea of presenting the play “The Mousetrap” at court. This leads to something of a tacit admission of the guilt of Hamlet’s stepfather in the murder of Hamlet’s father.

I asked Parenti about the percentage of the script which was written by him as opposed to Shakespeare’s original text. He said that roughly half of the script was composed by himself and the other half was from the Bard. Interestingly, lines from Shakespeare are at times assigned to other characters in the play (as are some excerpts from Shakespeare’s texts outside of “Hamlet”). All of this makes for an interesting and effective puzzle in which a classic drama is re-imagined from different dramatic angles.

Like Shakespeare, Parenti stated that he wrote much of the script in iambic pentameter (a line of verse which contains ten syllabic beats). He also stated that he was not completely strict in the application of ten syllables, and that occasionally a line might contain nine or eleven beats. I noted that I thought his contributions to the text flowed rather seamlessly with Shakespeare’s material.

I brought up the the perennial question as to whether Hamlet was truly in love with Ophelia. It was concluded that Hamlet’s ambivalent feelings towards his mother, Gertrude, colored his view of women and prevented him from making a full romantic commitment to Ophelia. We also discussed the fact that though the Oedipal drama as it portends to Hamlet is fairly well known (see Freud and Ernest Jones’ writings), Ophelia’s Oedipal conflict is no less dramatic (and perhaps even more so). Ophelia must contemplate the fact that her lover murdered her father which is a major factor in her eventual breakdown.

In my interview with Cristina, she said that she had done research into various other portrayals of Ophelia. I asked if there were any performances that she particularly admired. She mentioned Kate Winslet’s portrayal in the Kenneth Branagh film adaptation of “Hamlet” and Helena Bonham Carter’s performance in Franco Zefirelli’s film as providing particularly interesting insights into Ophelia’s character and back story.

Hamlet has a number of soliloquys which inform the audience as to his inner thinking. Except for her mad scene, Ophelia in Shakespeare’s text does not really receive that level of attention. Madera stated that she was delighted that Parenti’s text provided greater opportunity for the inner workings of Ophelia’s mind to be explored. She also indicated that it was rewarding to play a character who was challenging the conventions of the world around her.

“May Violets Spring” was first presented in the spring of 2014 and was very well received. (In fact, the run was extended for several performances due to popular demand). Parenti stated that the success of the previous production was an impetus for the play to be re-staged.

“May Violets Spring, A New Story for a New Ophelia,” is currently in previews. The production will open on October 5 and perform through October 22 at The WorkShop Theater located at 312 West 36th Street, Fourth Floor East. Four hundred years after his passing, the Bard and his work continue to be lively.

Theater Preview: 'May Violets Spring'     

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