You don’t need to possess any knowledge of theater at all to know the character of Ophelia, Hamlet’s doomed lover; her tragic descent into madness, like some of Hamlet’s more dramatic speeches, has taken on a life of its own.
But young Dallas playwright/actress Janielle Kastner would like you to know her new play Ophelia Underwater is not Shakespeare fan fic. It is instead an “aggressively contemporary” and brutally honest one-woman play which takes place inside the mind of a teenage girl.
The play marks the professional debut of Kastner the playwright, although Kastner the actress has been seen on stages across the city, and the world premiere production, which runs through May 21 at Fair Park’s Margo Jones Theatre, is also the first full-length production by The Tribe, a scrappy group of young actors and actresses who have been experimenting with traditional performance support models for a few years now, creating unconventional theater in unconventional spaces.
The idea for Ophelia Underwater formed in college. Toward the end of her four years at SMU, Kastner had a “sneaking suspicion” the idea for a play was percolating. “I was graduating college, surrounded by high performers, but the one thing that would continuously floor us was for someone to say, ‘You’re not nice’ or, 'You made me feel bad.’”
So she began writing, trying to parse out why those kinds of accusations in particular would make a young woman, striving to be a good girl, catch her breath. She asked herself, a self-admitted “recovering good girl,” what about being good would hold her back?
“I’ve always been obsessed with young women and how we socialize them,” she says a couple of days before opening night. She says she has always felt her “nerve endings” were strongly connected to all of the women in her life, and a potent sense of empathy means she has a strong sense of the pressure society places on girls who are just trying to be good.
At the same time as the rough outline of a play was taking shape, Kastner was doing scene work with the character of Ophelia. “Ophelia can’t be a good girl with everyone,” Kastner points out, so she goes mad. Kastner began marrying the monologues she had been constructing to the character of Ophelia. After graduation Kastner was accepted as an inaugural member of the Dallas Playwrights’ Workshop at Dallas Theatre Center with Will Power where she workshopped the play further.
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Kastner's play is set underwater in the mind of Hamlet’s forgotten, drowned heroine Ophelia (played in the inaugural production by Zoe Kerr). Ophelia is a high school girl, attempting to maintain a long distance relationship with her college boyfriend, a character the audience sees via Skype and knows only as H.
It just made sense. In Hamlet the character of Ophelia exists simply to further the other characters' tragedies, which is equally true of the characters of high school girls throughout drama and literature. “I like to create very tender spaces for people we don’t usually have time for,” she tells me. So in her play we, the audience, inevitably operate under the assumption that this young girl matters; we live with her character and realize, as we never have the chance to with the original Ophelia, what it’s like to lose her, and what was at stake for her as she made the final choice.
Despite the closeness of the subject matter, Kastner cautions her audience away from reading the story as autobiography. “I had to suppress my 26-year-old feminist tendencies,” she says. In other words, don’t expect a feminist think-piece. Instead expect a brutally honest, authentic play, with all the requisite lack of perspective and emotional stresses of a teenage girl. “I don’t want to start a cultural conversation,” Kastner says at the conclusion of our conversation. “I want you to be haunted."
See Ophelia Underwater at Margo Jones Theater at Fair Park, 1121 First Ave., at 8 p.m. Friday, May 20, and Sunday, May 22; and at 2 p.m Saturday, May 21. Tickets are $10-$25 at the-tribe.ticketleap.com.