Vibrant ‘Twelve Ophelias’ at GMU is a feminist spin on the Bard

A talented cast shines in Caridad Svitch's revisionist retelling of 'Hamlet' at George Mason University.

It’s impossible to resist the allure of Ophelia, one of the most tragic characters in all of literature. The play Twelve Ophelias by Caridad Svich, a feminist spin on Hamlet, gives her a chance to shine as the protagonist instead of a mere love interest. In a murky afterlife, Ophelia struggles to cope with the reality of her past and present. If Hamlet’s Ophelia was waifish and naive, this Ophelia is awakened to the cold truth of the world — as said in the play, there are no girls here.

George Mason University’s School of Theater brings Svich’s revisionist tale to the stage with color and vibrancy in this production directed by Brett Womack. The set is gorgeously simple, consisting of a set of steps, three large flowers, and a background of shifting colors. The cast makes use of props such as green-blue swaths of sheer fabric to create the rippling water that Ophelia rises from. Ophelia, played by Rylan Snyder, awakes from her watery grave and steps into a luminescent world that abounds with strange characters. Hamlet is Rude Boy and Gertrude runs a brothel. Rude Boy and his friend H wrestle and argue about love, and jesterlike characters G and R find joyful ways to pass the time in this purgatory world.

Brea Davis, Katie Rowe, Rylan Snyder, Nathaniel McCay, Keaton Lazar, and Sarah Stewart in ‘Twelve Ophelias’: one of many dream sequences in the show, each character feeling nothing but want and yearning. Photo by Aurora Powell.

Upon entrance into this new land, Ophelia doesn’t seem to quite know who she is or what she wants. She stumbles around, pursuing Rude Boy and then running from him, being consoled and then scolded by Gertrude and the others. This is certainly not a plot-driven story, and it can be a bit challenging to follow the thread of what is going on. The language is at times nonsensical, and it takes a poetic ear to appreciate the rollicking metaphors and indulgent meanderings of the dialogue. Time on stage is most often taken up by long monologues about love and loss that don’t often seem to end up anywhere lucid or important.

The talented cast shines despite some of the limitations of the text. Snyder gives a powerful and compelling performance as Ophelia. G and R, played by Katie Rowe and Sarah Stewart, shine as the down-to-earth, goodhearted fools, bringing a groundedness to the play that prevents it from becoming too grandiose. As H, Rude Boy’s closest friend and confidant, Keaton Lazar gives a goofy and sincere portrayal. The show excels in its dance numbers, where the cast is given a chance to be playful and sure-footed. Mina, played by Brea Davis, gives a stunning solo dance performance that is a highlight of this production.

Another strength of the performance is the unique and thoughtful use of the theater space. Cast members move into the aisles, sometimes throwing themselves dramatically down between rows of audience members. Haunting moments in the play were created by cast members singing from different places off-stage, so the sound comes at the audience from all directions. The effect of this was hair-raising and unforgettable.

Rylan Snyder, Brea Davis, Shannon Harrel, Elie Griggs, and Trevor Hagen Grote in ‘Twelve Ophelias’: Ophelia meeting Mina. Photo by Aurora Powell.

While it’s fun to get a glimpse into Ophelia’s upside-down afterlife, it’s hard not to miss what this play lacks: the deep commitment to storytelling that makes Shakespeare’s works so memorable. By the end of the play, it’s clear that Ophelia has undergone a transformation, learning how to better stand on her own, but there’s some confusion as to how we got here. The poetry-like dialogue of this production is beautiful but devoid of any cohesive narrative. This play might be best suited for those interested in experimental productions that focus more on prose and effects than they do plot, or Hamlet super-fans who will delight in the small details and references plucked from Shakespeare’s original play. Regardless, anyone who takes a chance on Twelve Ophelias will be rewarded with the superb performances of a talented young cast.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Twelve Ophelias plays through February 25, 2024, presented by George Mason University’s School of Theater performing at the Donald and Nancy deLaski Performing Arts Building, George Mason University, Aquia Creek Lane, Fairfax, VA. Purchase tickets ($30, general public; $15, students, staff, seniors, and groups) online.

The program for Twelve Ophelias is online here. 

COVID Safety: Face coverings are recommended. See GMU’s Health and Safety policy here. 

Twelve Ophelias
Written by Caridad Svich; Directed and Composed by Brett Womack; Assistant Director/Choreographer Spencer Wilde; Fight/Intimacy Director Lorraine Slone; Dramaturg Dan Piper; Stage Manager Andy Brown; Assistant Stage Manager Bertem Demirtas and Emma Mitchell; Technical Director Caleb McMurty; Assistant Technical Director Gabriel Embry; Scenic Designer Eli Nguyen; Properties Designer Stephan Starling; Assistant Properties Designer Paris Devlin; Costume Designer Hannah Griffith; Hair and Makeup Designer Aurora Powell; Sound Design by An Tran; Lighting Design by Garrett Jones

Mina, Dance Captain: Brea Davis
Chorus, G, and Mina Understudy: Idil Erdogan
Chorus, R & H Understudy: E Griggs
Gertrude: Arrieon Grovner
Chorus, Rude Boy Understudy: Aven Hagen Grote
Chorus, Fight Captain, Gertrude Understudy: Shannon Harrel
H: Keaton Lazar
Rude Boy: Nathaniel McCay
G: Katie Rowe
Chorus, Ophelia Understudy: Jennah Sidiabed
Ophelia: Rylan Snyder
R: Sarah Stewart
Swing: Olivia Wilson


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