Playwright Alexandra Petri, a Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard, a Washington Post columnist and a humorist (author of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, New American Library, 2016), must have wanted to gather misery like a bouquet. So she gives us — and in some ways it seems cruel — Ophelia, who will be found dead in water in the Shakespearean play, but who at camp is in canoe races without paddle or life preserver; Desdemona, looking elegant even at camp, unperturbed about receiving fifteen postcards at mail-call from a jealous secret husband; a Cordelia, no love on her horizon, bleakly cracking a joke to another camper: “I was brought up with a fool, so what can I say?” And Juliet, in jeans and neatly combed hair, in many ways just an adolescent female camper: her fellow campers, to jolt her out of her love-spiral, suggest that, when she met a boy, their hands touched and she “felt this jolt of, like, electricity,” she may have walked too quickly across a carpet.
Allen Smith, set designer, provides us with a set with an open-air Adirondack-style sleeping cabin, a camp chalkboard, and a tree stump, on which, eventually, blonde little Ophelia will set her long basket of gathered flowers. She’ll share them with three other campers whose terrible futures we mostly know, an almost chartable doom: when they sit by the campfire and hold flashlights under their chins to look spooky, look up at stars (and, with the exception of Cordelia, who is thinking of a king, to talk about boys) we can already imagine their unwitting future posts on social media. (Ophelia at one point cries out, about no word from Hamlet: “He didn’t even text me!”)
Yet, they’re the ones who died for love. Admit it: in some ways we envy them for their sacrifice. But when these girls look up at stars at outdoor camp bonfires, you do wonder if stars could give them a better talking-to than people (including playwrights) ever will.
The camp matriarch is none other than a bustling, yet remote, Lady M (for MacBeth) played by Natalie Keezer, wearing startling red lipstick and a spooky empty-circle pendant, hinting at her remove from summer camp. The advice she keeps giving the girls is just like the advice she gave her fine king: find your spine, find your courage, even screw your courage to the sticking place! But Lady M is strangely somber whenever hand sanitizer appears; because in this play she’s symbol of tragedy hiding behind ordinary life; she even remarks to the girls, it’s “astonishingly easy, even at camp, for people to pretend to be a complete other person.” But when she wants to tell strange and spooky stories, these four camp girls, normally resistant to her, huddle close: there’s something about her that says she gets a murder mystery.
Ryeleigh McCready has fallen well into the role of Ophelia; in her down-wilted clothes of tender pink, and her pink athletic shoes, her golden butterfly hairclips and her gold-rimmed spectacles (credits to costume designer Andrea Davenport, who obviously gave extra care and attention to Ophelia’s array of clothes) — you feel parental about her. She’s like Britney Spears, if you believe she began to lose her mind after Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River, no longer loved, she’s sure. Ophelia may not have pulled a coup in Shakespeare’s play, but here she does: while all this stage is cracking jokes about their royal connections, she keeps, somehow, a secret composure: an inner reserve that lets her crash into madness as a funny play goes on. Many, surely, would fail at this; but there’s not a false note here. When she hands her tragedy-mates weird flowers she’s collected, during her solo river sojourns, each other camper is hollow-faced, weirded-out.
Every line Brandy Pehrson speaks as Cordelia has notes of both self-rebuke and hunt-for-solution. Cordelia expresses the Joan-of-Arc anxiety and vulnerability that, had she found a way to be brave enough to express it in Shakespeare’s play, might have brought her beloved king close. (“Why can’t I think on my feet?” she asks herself, in a moment alone at camp, aloud.) Much of this play is her arguments with Ms. Perfectly and Ascendantly Defiant, Desdemona; and you love Cordelia when she finally finds a way to love/pity Desdemona, after Desdemona admits she’s “not that popular at home, now, either,” like Cordelia, estranged from her father, both “unhomed.” Playwright Petri has written Cordelia’s lines; but Pehrson does not fail to let you get near her Cordelia-pain, show you how much of her awkwardness has been a self-recognized shyness and confusion, a trait often found in people with considerable imaginations.
It’s touching to see bubbly happy ginger-haired little Juliet (Allison Billmeyer) paired with fading Ophelia in a canoe race; while Ophelia goes all-lost-flower-child-at-Glastonbury in the front of the boat, Juliet frowns and frowns, as if she sees beyond the canoe race, to that Ophelia’s tuning-out-of-love with Hamlet (Ophelia: “We broke up”) is a nobler letting-herself-go than Juliet, paddling forward for both of them, will ever know. Taking a potion, and doing a disappearing act, are, in comparison to Ophelia, just cheerful quick remedies, self-cheer-led game plans to score. Ophelia withdraws, admits defeat, suffers confusion; but enterprising, scheme-filled Juliet never will. (It will backfire on you, you want to warn; but there’s so much back-fire and side-fire and forward-fire in Shakespeare’s plays only jesters and fools seem to rise above. And playwrights.)
There’s an unforgettable moment in this play, when a blank-faced female police officer strides into the camp: played ghostly by Emily Kitterer, you realize she’s the modern Hermes messenger of tragedy, doom. It’s wonderfully, simply done: one person in a blue uniform, dull duty on her face, coming through the camp’s rustic joined-logs archway. No cheer.
Can tragedy for these girls/women be averted, by girl-talk, girl-bonding? The support of sisters? It remains dubious: Ophelia can’t swim, but in the state of mind she’s in already, she wouldn’t accept swimming lessons anyway; Desdemona (Brianna Meikle) is so busy with conversations/rivalries (competition to be “besties”) at camp she doesn’t recognize that the handkerchief she pulls from her fanny pack and blows her nose in is the very handkerchief her love-object Othello, hot-tempered, would love a quick photograph of, to prove she has kept a symbol of his love; poor Cordelia has fallen so deep into self-pity, drinking from her smuggled-in liquor though the play, that you sense death for her might be beginning to look as restorative and cheering as a good draft beer. And Juliet is not really listening to anyone; if anyone doesn’t like her urgent chatting about her new boyfriend with his transfixing gaze and touch, she moves to a different, distant place to sit, alone.
A geographical rearrangement strategy (musical chairs) is suggested as a last-ditch save recommended for these dark stars, only seen with each other, and their Lady M, at camp: Ophelia snaps out of her wobbliness to stand at a camp blackboard, to suggest they change towns (and thus rearrange fates). But would it work? And Ophelia, with her chalk, only plays strategist for everyone else, refusing a possible life jacket for herself. Her chalk lines only redirect others to other countries. Is this her fatalism, her unwillingness to give up on her love for Hamlet, thus, an expression of truest love? Dido, singing “I will go down with this ship/I’m in love, and always will be”?
This summer camp functions, in this play, as a symbol of these character’s already distant, removed status in their Shakespearean plays; they’re enmoated by love, and this camp is supposed to give them a place to, um, think it over. But one could argue that this state is the islanded state on which all these female characters will ever be on, Shakespeare’s expression of his own trapped, but exulting, creative self.
If you state that Shakespeare’s Cordelia has the mulling-it-over, all-assessing soul of a writer, Desdemona is a protest artist, and Ophelia is all creatives suddenly plunged into depression, you might be right. There’s really no swim-rescue from that island; these women may just have the curse of their creative brain wiring. Lady MacBeth may have been a natural playwright, irritably wanting scenes and action done, the play wrapped up, the castle hers. Juliet is the soul of the actor, dancer: it’s no wonder Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story. The balcony she stands on, when Romeo makes his declarations of love, is the trappedness of the dancer who can barely move, the puppet eager to have more than a stage, who wants to be real, have an endless dance floor.
Petri, bringing her famous campers close to each other, brings comparisons anew, which even Shakespeare might adore/enjoy. But all these tragic heroines of his all together in one play, might trouble him, too, as if one warden with all the keys to all the rooms in The Tower of London might allow all Shakespeare’s emblems of sadness and misery to come together to compare plights, all on one Midsummer’s Night Nightmare-night.
Shakespeare might prefer all his nightmares stay fresh from his brain – even if misery truly loves company. Not tattle to each other, even if he and his characters could travel backward in time. That would, of course, unwrite his writings, change literary stars in the sky. Can these women become soul sisters? They’re that already: Shakespeare’s their dad. And Shakespeare, womb to tomb, would want the last word on what happened when they, however dumb and young they are, find their fortunes (love).
Tragedy Averted, by Alexandra Petri, directed by Teresa Sanderson, is Pygmalion Producstions‘ first production since a long-term closure for the pandemic. Face masks must be worn; proof of vaccination must be shown. In the Leona Wagner Black Box Theater, in the Rose Wagner Theater, Salt Lake City, through October 23. Author Alexandra Petri will appear for a Q & A session, following the play’s performance on October 15.
Rebecca Pyle is a writer and an artist with work in dozens of art/literary journals, in the United States and also in journals (in the English language) in India and the United Kingdom and in France and Germany. She graduated from the university the Wizard of Oz adored, the University of Kansas, where she studied art and lit. See rebeccapyleartist.com.