It’s tempting to imagine what might happen to a beloved character if he or she were granted a life that extended beyond the bounds of the play, and even more so when that character’s role seems to have been unfairly cut short. Beginning on Friday, May 6, audiences at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater will witness a minor miracle of this sort when a workshop production of KJ Sanchez’s new play Too Much Water revives Shakespeare’s Ophelia. This exciting project combines two of the strengths of the school’s BFA program by crossing Launch Pad, a program in which students participate in the development of new plays, with Acting Up Front, an approach to production that emphasizes the centrality of voice and movement in storytelling. The script is a multifaceted collaboration that weaves together lines from Shakespeare and some new lines for Ophelia, with a medley of voices captured by BFA students who performed interviews with their peers about the subjects raised by the role — being loved, wanting to be a good girl, being shamed, and, at the dark heart of things, suicide.
As directed by Jenny Mercein and Joyelle Ball, the cast, which includes BFA program senior Solmyra Araiza as Ophelia, will gather in a rehearsal room to work on a modern-day production of Hamlet only to find that a living Ophelia has mysteriously appeared among them. When I saw an early version of this work last August, Araiza’s solo performance of Ophelia literally crawling out of her grave and brushing dirt off her dress was riveting. I expect that the performance can only have improved from there.
Seeking both a tighter focus and an approach that would bring the performers into a closer relation to the material, Sanchez and her team trained students to conduct a series of interviews designed to elicit useful reflections on the pressures that might lead a young woman to take her own life. At a time when suicide rates in this country are soaring, and when they are increasing particularly rapidly among women, it’s a crucial public health issue. It’s also an exciting way in to the complex world of Shakespeare’s character, whom we observe as she too hears the testimony of her sisters in sorrow. It’s through this act of listening that her memory is restored. For this Ophelia, revival is more than a matter of picking yourself up and dusting yourself off — you also have to remember what you’ve been through and acknowledge who you are.
The student actors received a master class in documentary theater this fall when Anna Deavere Smith came to UCSB through Arts & Lectures. Although the technique used by the six members of the chorus in Too Much Water does not depend so much on vocal impersonation, there’s a deeper connection based on faithfulness to the verbatim transcripts and an actor’s understanding of emotion and motivation.
While the student actors in the rehearsal within the play take turns helping Ophelia, “Hamlet [the play] doesn’t need any help” according to Mercein. “We aren’t trying to make it a better play, but we are acknowledging that the part of Ophelia was underwritten and that there’s more to be told about Ophelia’s journey.”
Too Much Water shows at the UCSB Performing Arts Theater May 6-May 15. For tickets and information, visit theaterdance.ucsb.edu or call (805) 893-2064.