Some high schools put on an abridged version of Romeo and Juliet. Cooperative Arts High School is staging an immersive, site-specific, feminist rewrite of Hamlet.
Written by a drama teacher, Capillary Waves shoves Hamlet out of the spotlight and instead centers the story on Ophelia. In Shakespeare’s version, she’s the jilted lover who commits suicide. In Co-Op’s version, she’s the heroine who talks back to men, rescues Hamlet from his uncle’s plots and is ultimately murdered trying to save him.
In its world premiere, Capillary Waves weaves throughout the downtown magnet school, turning locker-lined hallways into a castle’s chambers, an auditorium into a vast lake, a cafeteria into a pub, and a basketball court into purgatory — all leading up to a big reveal at the finale.
The three-hour play opened on Tuesday afternoon. Its final performance is Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
Charley McAffee, a faculty member at Co-Op who has written a dozen plays, said he penned Capillary Waves after acting in the tragedy a decade ago. He played Laertes, Polonius’s son and Ophelia’s brother who ultimately kills Hamlet in a sword fight. McAffee couldn’t shake questions about the character’s back story.
“What the heck happened to his mom? Why did he want to go back to Paris so badly? Do [Hamlet and Ophelia] sleep together?” McAffee asked after Wednesday’s matinee. “I became obsessed with this family and played with a lot of ideas.”
The play took shape after McAffee had a daughter, now 6 years old. He wondered how she’d experience Shakespeare one day, not to mention how his predominantly female acting class did right now. Rather than simply switching up genders in the play, he rewrote the Bard’s greatest work with “dynamic, powerful” roles for women. “Because we don’t have enough of them in the land of Shakespeare and in modern drama,” he said.
In Shakespeare’s 1623 text, Ophelia speaks in only one quarter of the play’s 20 scenes. Often, she’s a pawn for the male characters.
From the beginning of the original play, her relatives are telling her what to do. Her brother Laertes warns her not to “lose [her] heart,” while her dad Polonius commands her to ignore the Hamlet’s come-ons. “You do not understand yourself so clearly,” he says.
Even so, Polonius baits his daughter to Hamlet to figure out what’s ailing the prince. Hamlet immediately ices her out. “I did love you once,” he says, before telling her to give up on love entirely. “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” he asks. “Get thee to a nunnery!”
After Hamlet stabs her father, Ophelia wanders the castle in hysterics, muttering incoherently and casting garlands at her brother’s feet. The queen soon delivers the news that she watched Ophelia drown herself.
“Her clothes spread wide and mermaid-like awhile they bore her up” in a brook, Gertrude recounts, but soon, “her garments, heavy with their drink, pulled the poor wretch … to muddy death.”
Compared to Hamlet, whose backstory is developed through lengthy soliloquies, ghastly apparitions, and age-old friends, Ophelia has no past, even as Hamlet and Laertes rumble in her grave. McAffee decided to give her one.
The play begins with Ophelia verbally sparring with Hamlet, after she catches him peeping outside her window as she changes.
Unlike the scolding that Laertes and Polonius deliver in Shakespeare’s version, McAffee’s Ophelia calls out Hamlet for his pattern of short-lived trysts. Then, she jabs at society for letting him get away with it, while women can’t be promiscuous.
“You literally watch a woman suffocating at all times,” she says. “Have you ever had to wear a corset for 12 hours?”
“I’m not used to women being so…” Hamlet starts.
“Real?” Ophelia cuts in.
“You used to be so little and now you’re so big,” he says, a moment later. “How can you be so different from what you seem?”
“How can I be what I am when you all work so hard to make me what I’m not?”
Later, Ophelia upstages Hamlet during his most famous soliloquy. “To be or not to be,” Hamlet begins, proclaiming the well-known line from the top of a staircase. But then, Hamlet lowers his voice and whispers the rest, as Ophelia launches into a monologue about a daughter who rescues her father from political imprisonment and is punished for it.
Near the end, McAffee proposes that Ophelia never committed suicide, as Gertrude tells the court in Shakespeare’s version. Instead, he writes her death as a murder at Gertrude’s hands.
At that moment, not knowing where else to turn, Ophelia privately confides in Gertrude about all she’s learned. She proposes that they team up to avenge King Hamlet’s death, taking back the story from the men. “They tell their tragedies of princes, kings, lords, even fools. But women’s stories are more comedy to man than the lowest clown; they’re only ornaments to tragic hero’s stories.” But Gertrude betrays her, choking her into silence.
In the final scene, Capillary Waves abruptly shifts to the present day. Denmark’s blood-soaked castle becomes an ordinary high school. Ophelia wakes from the dead, slips on a hoodie and walks into English class.
“Do you know how late you are?” Polonius, now a teacher, barks. “Take a look at the clock and sit down.”
We find out we’ve spent the last three hours inside a young girl’s mind, watching her revisionist take on Shakespeare enacted in Co-Op’s hallways, as she heads to class to discuss the actual text.
Then, in an unexpected mind-bender, we realize that we’re a figment of the girl’s imagination, too. Back in the real world, the girl seems to think that there is no audience that cheers for female protagonists, that cares about the unlimited poem in her head.
Still trapped in the diegetic world of the play, we can’t follow Ophelia back into class. As the last scene unfolds, the audience presses up against a glass window, unable to hear what’s said in class. We can tell that the girl tries to participate, but the teacher shoots her down. The boys in the room burst out laughing at her answer; she lays her head down on the table.
At the bell, the teacher and students all walk out of the classroom and intermingle with the audience, leaving Ophelia behind with her back to us.
The play’s title, “Capillary Waves,” refers to the scientific name for ripples. That’s exactly how the actors describe the play’s themes resonating through their lives.
Shalont Dixon, the junior who plays Claudius, said he’s gone out of his way to show women the respect that his character never got from King Hamlet. Audrey Adji, another junior who plays Gertrude, said wearing a revealing evening gown prompted her to trade in the long skirts she used to wear and test the school’s dress code, which seemed to apply only to women’s bodies.
And Cristal Arguello, the senior who plays Ophelia, said the role has been the most challenging one she’s ever had. Likely headed to University of Connecticut at Storrs next year, she described herself as “quiet, shy and reserved,” while Ophelia is “dominant, loud and fierce.”
She cries every time she gets to the end, when Laertes asks if she “gave up her innocence” to Hamlet and tosses her on the floor. She said it reminded her of an abusive relationship she watched her sister go through. And the ending’s real for her, too, because she’s often felt dismissed like that as well.
Since taking on the role, she’s noticed the way that men cut her off in conversation. “I get frustrated,” she said.
Had playing Ophelia taught her any tricks, ways to take command of the narrative? “Hmm,” Arguello thought, then answered with a smile. “Sword-fighting.” Or, she added, “Maybe writing.”