NY Review: 'Drowning Ophelia'

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Photo Source: Elizabeth Dillard
Rock musicals and rock operas based on Shakespeare's "Hamlet" have been with us in profusion at least since the late 1960s. It seems there's no stopping them, despite a few devastatingly received attempts. "Rockabye Hamlet," the seven-performance 1976 Broadway flop, keeps getting revised, retitled, and re-produced. There's even a Madrid-based heavy metal band of 20 years' standing called Hamlet. I can't tell you why people keep trying to musicalize this densely downbeat, albeit popular, drama. I can only tell you what's different about his one.

As the title suggests, Ophelia is the focus of this approach. She's a rock star who has been trapped in purgatory, because her death by drowning was ruled a suicide by the Church. Completing her memoirs and having reason to believe that Hamlet himself is coming for her after 410 years in limbo, Ophelia (an appealing Eliza Morris) announces that what we are about to see will be her farewell concert. She is backed by her first-rate trio, the Clowns: Feste (Tommy Malouf on guitar), Touchstone (Zack Powell, bass), and Puck (Patrick Boylan, keyboard). (Appropriating names from other Shakespeare plays is one of the wittier aspects of the book by J.D. Cannady, who also directed.) The terrific music and less-good lyrics are by Powell, with Boylan and Malouf providing additional music (and Morris getting a vague credit for "words"). Powell successfully ventures into country rock and folk rock as well as regular rock. All three musicians also play acoustic guitars and supporting roles, with Malouf the most memorable, as Queen Gertrude.

A decidedly supporting player himself, Mickey O'Sullivan's Hamlet doesn't enter until halfway through the hourlong presentation, in a flashback to Shakespeare's play, sparring with Ophelia for several of the original speeches, ending with "To a nunnery, go." If only she had. By then Cannady's book, vulgar and repetitive to begin with, has further palled and become merely the story of, in Ophelia's own words, "just another whiny girl committing suicide," entering Sylvia Plath territory. The entire company, the aptly named Riff Collective, has been as exuberant as collegians can be (all but O'Sullivan are students at Illinois State University). But even they seem to concede that the conceit by now has run its course.

Presented by Riff Collective as part of Frigid New York at Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, NYC. Feb. 25–March 4. Remaining performances: Mon. Feb. 27, 10:30 p.m.; Thu., March 1, 6 p.m.; Fri., March 2, 9 p.m.; Sun., March 4, 1 p.m. (212) 868-4444, www.smarttix.com, or www.frigidnewyork.info.