Review: In powerful ‘Too Much Water,’ Shakespeare’s Ophelia meets 2016 college students

By Derek Haddad, guest reviewer
Monday, May 09, 2016 09:39 AM

Editor’s note: UC Santa Barbara Department of Theater and Dance is presenting “Too Much Water” at the Performing Arts Theater on campus, continuing May 10-15. “Too Much Water” follows Ophelia’s ghost as she revisits Elsinore, guided by other famous suicides like Meriwether Lewis, Seneca, and Virginia Woolf. Combining found text, transcriptions of interviews with contemporary young women, and highly theatrical movement, “Too Much Water” explores the lives of “good girls,” the social taboos of madness, and the repercussions and reverberations of suicide. Classics Ph.D. student Derek Haddad reviews the play.

Photo courtesy of UCSB Theater and DanceThe show begins and ends with Ophelia's death. In between, her spirit haunts the stage of a modern group of college students rehearsing “Hamlet” – a play within a play. It's a gimmick, sure, but the power of this show lies in the way the students help Ophelia understand how she became insane – and how Ophelia's struggles relate to young women's issues today, such as "slut shaming" and victim blaming. Students from all backgrounds will benefit from mining the depths of this show, a show that needs to be performed on campuses all across the country.

Salmyra Araiza performs the greatest iteration of Ophelia I have seen, exploring every facet of the character as a girl, a teenager, and a woman. So when she does descend into madness, it's as sincere and moving as Angelina Jolie’s performance in “Girl, Interrupted.” The actors use movement and dance to maintain the sense of a fluid, dream-like story. One brilliant trick is how the show flits back and forth between past and present. The student actors will be talking to Ophelia about her past, and suddenly in a jolt the students seem forced to the sides as Hamlet and the rest appear center stage. The effect is that Ophelia's ghost slowly works through her memories. Some of these memories are directly from “Hamlet,” while others are invented.

The playwright, KJ Sanchez, thus seems to be answering the question, “In Ophelia’s death, what dreams may come?” Each time the students witness a new memory, they deconstruct it, discussing the gender and sexual ethics underpinning Ophelia's relationship with the various men in her life. This leads to the student performers talking about similar issues and experiences they have faced –  and the playwright drew these stories from interviews with actual students. While it is focused on the female narrative, there are some men in the show, and space is given to the college boys to critique what it means to “be a man.”

As the students and Ophelia keep going back and forth, I wondered who the spirits were and who was real. Were the students all in Ophelia's mind, or was she a dream of the students? Like Margaret Atwood's “Penelopiad,” this show gives voice to the ghost of an underrepresented character, who never got her own full narrative arc before. Incorporating movement and dance was genius (but more practice on the dance element is needed), especially with the series of white sheets draping from the ceiling, two of which were held up horizontally and waved about like water at the end, as Ophelia relives her inevitable demise.

***

“Too Much Water” continues May 10-15. General admission is $17; $13 for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and seniors. For more information, visit the Theater and Dance "Too Much Water" Event page. Also, read UCSB Current's "Shakespeare's Ophelia Meets UCSB College Students" and the Santa Barbara Independent's "Too Much Water."

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