Ophelia, Thrice Born
By Loren Edelson
By Aya Ogawa
HERE Arts Center
145 6th Ave.
Box office: (212) 352-3101
Since the publication of the psychologist
Mary Pipher's book Reviving Ophelia in 1994, it has become
fashionable to apply the name of Shakespeare's fallen heroine
to the plight of contemporary adolescent girls and young women
who, Pipher contends, "become confused by others' expectations"
and lose "their true selves" due to a "girl-poisoning culture."
Aya Ogawa's stunning new play oph3lia, which she wrote
and directed, offers yet another meditation on the subject. Unlike
many of the psychological studies and feminist tomes on the topic,
however, it neither preaches nor prescribes a remedy. Instead
it offers a dose of culture shock, alienation, and loneliness
that a modern-day Ophelia might in fact feel.
As we enter the newly renovated house at
HERE Arts Center, several teenage schoolgirls wait in the wings
of the theater, dressed in identical school uniforms: plaid mini-skirts
and white midi blouses with bow ties, knee socks, and black-leather
Mary Janes. They could be giddy girls at any private Manhattan
school, but we are soon informed by their imperious teacher, Ms.
Virginia Warren (Dawn Eshelman), that they are students at the
Wuhan Christian Girls School in China. She thanks us, the parents
and teachers of the girls, and explains apologetically that while
"it might not be Broadway" or the "Peking theater," the girls
have been working hard on the show we are about to see.
transported around the globe, I am half expecting the girls to
enact Hamlet in the manner of Shakespeare's R&J
(Joe Calarco's all-boys' school adaptation of Romeo and Juliet,
which ran for a year in New York back in 1998), but instead, without
warning, the language that emerges from the stage is not Shakespeare's
but a young girl's terse Japanese. As this petite character (Ikuko
Ikari) takes her place onstage, we hear a recorded voiceover in
which she describes how she came to New York a decade earlier
without knowing a word of English and struggled with simple matters
such as buying a cup of coffee.
This is the first of the three Ophelias.
Indeed, Ogawa has written three disparate tales, each featuring
a different Ophelia who embodies and embellishes aspects of Shakespeare's
leading lady. The other two are a translator (Maureen Sebastian),
whose so-called Asian features cause her clients to assume that
she does not speak the required English or Spanish, and "Cissy"
(Eunjee Lee), the newest student to join the class at Wuhan Girls'
School. Cissy is the only Ophelia given a name in the course of
the play. Though the connections to Hamlet are tenuous,
all three girls exhibit characteristics that resonate with Pipher's
analysis of troubled adolescent girls (and young women). As dramaturg
Pete McCabe writes in the program, Shakespeare's "Ophelia is a
figure who is defined from without." She seeks to please the men
in her life, her father, brother, and Hamlet, negating her own
desires and ultimately committing suicide. Ogawa's characters
try to please the people around them only to be spurned, teased,
Though it is tempting to imagine that these
three separate stories function like a play within a play in the
manner of Hamlet's mousetrap, that is not really the case. They
are each equally developed and compelling and they do not so much
sit within one another as exist horizontally, alongside one another.
Each offers a glimpse into the challenges of navigating cross-cultural
relations on a very personal, localized level. We see the Japanese
Ophelia go about her daily routine in New York. Against the harsh,
anonymous city landscape and her fellow commuters, she decides
that it is easier not to speak--or eat or sleep--than to endure
the daily humiliation of being misunderstood. Her recorded Japanese
narrative is translated onto smartly hung supertitles (some of
the best I've seen in the theater), which allows non-Japanese
speakers to understand what is said while also recognizing the
alienating sensation of not understanding it. Meanwhile, desperate
for human contact, the Japanese Ophelia invites a man (Mark Lindberg)
back to her apartment for the night. They communicate with their
eyes and bodies, but his early-morning departure and failure to
say goodbye only exacerbates her trauma. In one of the overt parallels
to Shakespeare's play, the man, whose face and shirt are bloodied
after their encounter, also plays the role of Hamlet later in
the play, inserting himself into the Wuhan School production.
kind of cultural clash occurs across town in New York in a high-strung
producer's office. At first we see a young woman, our second Ophelia,
dressed immaculately in white, standing alone against a large,
white room-divider. She remains silent when a producer's assistant,
Sarah (Hana Kalinski), appears, decked out in a red hot dress,
and instructs her to wait. Through her body language, Sarah conveys
that she has had difficulty communicating with her; we are led
to assume that they do not speak each other's language. Meanwhile,
in a different room, two female producers (Alanna Medlock and
Drae Campbell) meet with an up-and-coming writer (Jorge Alberto
Rubio) to discuss a possible commission for their theater. The
problem is, he speaks only Spanish and they speak only English.
The producers (and, apparently, their assistant) assume that the
attractive woman (Laura Butler) accompanying him is an assigned
interpreter. But this notion is quickly dispelled as she too speaks
Spanish and cannot understand what the producers are saying.
The staging here is particularly effective;
both "rooms" are simultaneously visible; the woman in white sits
alone downstage while the artistic team is seated directly behind
the white barricade. They are so close, yet they are on different
sides of the building. Without access to a translator, the foursome
tries to conduct business, but miscommunication piles on miscommunication.
At first the mistakes are benign: they all get coffee with milk
when at least one of them ordered it black, and the writer thinks
he has understood that the producers are lesbians. Unlike the
lines of the Japanese Ophelia, the Spanish dialogue is not translated,
but somehow it is comprehensible, even for a non-Spanish speaker,
partly because the action is physicalized. Indeed, the parties
engage in a kind a comic circular dance, traveling clockwise and
counter-clockwise to correspond with the stop-and-go flow of conversation.
Finally, the assistant realizes that she
has put the actual interpreter--the woman in white--in the wrong
room (but doesn't actually admit that she presumed she was not
fluent in English or Spanish). When the translator is finally
led to the correct room, the real exchange of ideas begins, but
it quickly becomes apparent that the foursome got along better
when they had no idea what the others were saying. The situation
devolves, as the parties fail to agree on what they had assumed
was a fait accompli. They treat the interpreter with utter contempt,
as if she were their personal robot, who was responsible for their
differences of opinion. The comical nature of the situation comes
to a screeching halt when the writer unleashes his anger not on
the producers but on the interpreter.
A different kind of culture shock takes
place back at the Wuhan Christian Girls School in China where
Ogawa puts a new spin on the old theme of the new kid on the block.
Cissy, a Korean national and the only non-white student, is the
new girl. Painfully shy, she fidgets, slouches, and keeps tugging
at her skirt. Her classmates mock her timidity and, like those
seemingly sophisticated producers, assume that because she is
Asian she cannot speak English. As it turns out, Cissy's English
is lucid but that only becomes apparent when she is called on
to present a paper on Hamlet, for which she hilariously
analyzes the significance of the number "two" in the text. To
further complicate her outsider status, Ms. Warren gives her preferential
treatment because of her father's important position as the new
cultural attaché of the Korean embassy, and, much to the chagrin
of her classmates, she is chosen to play Ophelia in the school
there are three designated Ophelias, all the girls at the private
school are clearly in need some kind of "reviving." They have
the privilege of living as ex-pats in China, probably because
of their parents' high-powered careers, yet they rarely have the
opportunity to leave the isolated world of their school, settling
instead for staring matches with the adolescent boys at the school
next door. They get their jollies writing obscene notes ("blow
job") and holding them up so the boys are sure to see them. Ogawa
is careful to show us that their behavior reflects that of Ms.
Warren and the principal (Jorge Alberto Rubio), who carry on a
flirtatious relationship in the hallway, apparently within earshot
of the girls. The girls are left to pass the time dancing, singing,
and dreaming about a way to escape the confines of their environment.
They get a jolt when they are invited to perform Hamlet
but the rigged casting and the canoodling faculty's decision to
take the lead parts suggests that the girls will be left where
we first meet them: waiting in the wings.
Ogawa's superb direction energizes every
moment of the production. Out of just a few props, set pieces,
recorded sound, and music, the actors create scenes that range
from the chaotic hustle and bustle of New York to the stultifying
environment of the girls' school. The cast, many of whom have
been together for the past decade, move together seamlessly as
a group. Several actors play more than one role and many relay
more about their characters through physical movement than dialogue.
One wonders how much of the play is autobiographical.
Ogawa, after all, was born in Japan and raised in the United States.
Yet it is difficult to imagine her ever having difficulty pronouncing
"coffee" or any other word in English. She might have drawn from
her experiences as a simultaneous interpreter, but it is equally
difficult to believe that any of her clients would fling coffee
in her face. Indeed, on the occasions that I've seen her interpret
in public--at Japan Society, where she is a senior program officer
for performing arts, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music--her
clients have showed utter gratitude and awe at her immense talents.
Her ability to translate cultural chaos to the stage in a palpable
manner is rare. She jars the theatergoer out of her everyday world
and allows her to vicariously experience--and empathize with--her
contemporary Ophelias, who want only to be understood. Amazingly,
that is just what happens in the theater.
Photos copyright Carl Skutsch 2008.