“Hamlet didn’t even text!!” exclaims Ophelia during the play. In Idly Bent Theatre Company’s Tragedy Averted, the overblown drama of teenage years takes on a whole new set of stakes. Rest assured, a missed SMS will be the least of Ophelia’s problems by the end of the show.
Beginning like the setup for a bad joke, Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia, and Juliet meet in a sleep-away camp. Spread out in sleeping bags across the small blackbox of The Shop at Fort Fringe, they trade stories and even play a frantic game of Never Have I Ever.
The game allows our first glimpse into the personalities and home lives of these young women. We are introduced to Juliet, an overly excitable teeny-bopper (Stephanie Lebolt), the cool and self-assured WASPy Desdemona (Anna Burke), the precocious and inquisitive Ophelia (Megan Graves), and a self-possessed but anxiety-ridden Cordelia (Katie Nigsch-Fairfax).
The young women spill details of first kisses and big-time crushes and try to one-up each other in the process. Of course, these are no ordinary teenagers sharing gossip and creating petty rivalries. They are the tragic heroines of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear. Writer Alexandra Petri breaks these doomed literary women free from their individual tales and gives them new voices. In doing so, Ms. Petri creates a stage for the ladies to join forces and change their fate.
Tragedy Averted is laid out in vignettes over the course of two summers at what is clearly best described as Lady M’s Summer Camp for Wayward Virgins. (Yes, that Lady M.)
During the first summer, Ms. Petri broadly sketches these young women for humorous effect, freely mixing Shakespearean text and character back-story with a Clueless aesthetic. (“Oh heavenly powers! This is, like…blah.”) While this proves a successful approach for the literary and theatre sets in the audience, there was a worry the play would continue on in this manner of in-jokes with little else to sustain it besides puns and clever turns of phrases.
by Alexandra Petri
at Fort Fringe – The Shop
607 New York Ave NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Details and tickets
Luckily, we meet the characters again the following summer and they are given some wiggle-room to be more fully fledged characters who grow and change before us. A lot has happened between these two summers: Juliet has met her Romeo, Desdemona has married Othello to escape her boring home-life, Ophelia has been forced to break up with Hamlet, and Cordelia has been kicked out of her home and taken to drinking and wandering. Even Camp Mistress Lady M (played by Ruthie Rado, decidedly channeling Jane Lynch) has a bloody situation at home. Life has hit these characters at full force and they’ve come back together at camp to make sense of it all.
The play is rife with quippy language, melding modern and literary allusions humorously. (Ms. Petri writes a humorous column for the Washington Post and that particular style, whether you love or hate it, seems to shine through in this piece especially with lines like, “Othello says he a PUSEY…Progressive Until Someone Elopes with Your daughter.”)
There were many moments, however, when the language and action were lost and lines were muddled by actors too eager to get through them and rush on to the next manic moment. However, when the actors took their time to command the language and their stage, the effect was utterly charming. Megan Graves was particularly lovely as the bright and effervescent Ophelia. Similarly, Anna Burke’s performance as a Desdemona transformed from superficial teen Queen Bee to vulnerable woman, was delightful. The command and comfort of the women on stage, particularly Ms. Graves and Ms. Burke, grounds this farcical production in a real and identifiable place.
Despite, the silly wordplay and action played for laughs, there is a true sadness that runs through this comedy. What happens when you’re written to fail? Can you overcome the narrative that’s been set out for you? Ms. Petri gives the venue for a possibility in these doomed characters. Faced with the imminent threats of life outside of the camp, Ophelia sets out to alter the course of her friends’ lives. Will it be enough? She seems to think so, “The key to everything is making something.” We’re left hopeful but unsure at the end, a young girl in a leaky boat.
Tragedy Averted sets out as Shakespearean fan-fiction for the Mean Girls set and ends with an exploration of what it means to be the creator of your own destiny. The production is playful and light but rooted in something truthful and bigger than itself.
I recommend the Idly Bent Theatre Company’s production of this new work and also applaud the female-centric cast and story. Hamlet didn’t text but screw ’em. The show doesn’t need him or any of Bill’s Rodeo of Tortured Dudes to go on.