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Ikuko Ikari as mute Ophelia and cast in "oph3lia." Photo: Carl Skutsch
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.

Schoolgirls in "oph3lia." Photo: Carl SkutschThus, 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, and violated.

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.

Maureen Sebastian as the translator in "oph3lia." Photo: Carl SkutschAnother 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 play.

Ikuko Ikari and Mark Lindberg in "oph3lia." Photo: Carl SkutschThough 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.


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