If you’re going to remake Hamlet, one of the best-known works of fiction in the western world, you better have a damn solid plan. Like, you’d better do more than just casting that guy from Lethal Weapon. You’ve better plan to go full African savannah-Elton John soundtrack-cartoon meerkat adaptation.
In other words, you need to do what writer Alexandra Petri has done with to tell my story: a hamlet fanfic, playing through July 30 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre. Petri and director Megan Behm have somehow put together a Hamlet/Mean Girls/Wattpad mash-up that is both funny and moving, both outlandish and topical.
The play takes the framework of Shakespeare’s tragedy and gives it a modern day setting, much of which is online. Many of the characters, including Hamlet – known here as Elsie – and Horatio, are teenage girls and there’s a heavy reliance on fanfiction-writing as a subplot throughout the play. In fact, early on in the play when an Abraham Lincoln fanfic is introduced, you start to wonder if Petri might have veered even further from her source material than she would have with a musical number featuring an evil lion and hyenas.
It shouldn’t be all that surprising that this works. There’s a lot of angst in Hamlet, after all, and teenagers are known to dabble in that particular character trait. Setting much of the story in the online world raises the stakes and allows for an exploration of internet relationships in a way that the Bard never could have quite imagined. And the fanfiction aspect of the play highlights Petri’s gift for humor and satire, but it also pokes a little at the implications of forever having the option of finding or writing new endings to stories when we want what we think will be a more satisfying conclusion.
The show is engaging throughout, but it was the portrayal of Ophelia that stuck with me most. With intentionally limited stage time, she’s the slipperiest of the characters in the play, and she most clearly demonstrates the tension between the humor in the play and its heavier elements. Both comic relief and dramatic fodder, Ophelia calls out the way she’s essentially being used as a mechanism to propel someone else’s story. That acknowledgement forces the audience to think a bit more about why she’s so easily dismissed throughout the play: is it because she has a typical teenage silliness and self-absorption? Because she’s lonely? Because she wants people not to be mean to her? The tragic/comic balance is never more stark or unsettling than during a Facebook Live moment that’s crafted to contain humor even though anyone with even a passing familiarity with Hamlet has to know where it’s headed.
Sarah Taurchini, who plays Ophelia, isn’t the only member of the cast that has to balance comedy and tragedy in the same scene – and occasionally the same line – and everyone in the small cast is great. Annie Ottati as Elsie and Chloe Mikala as Horatio are both excellent, displaying both range and stamina as they’re on stage for essentially the entire 95 minutes or so of the show. And Shravan Amin and Colin Connor are both dashing back and forth on stage in so many different roles that it’s a little amazing they can keep their lines and costumes straight.
It’s unfortunate that to tell my story doesn’t have a longer run, but if you can get out to see it before July 30, you should. It’s rare to find a play – or any other piece of culture, to be honest – that’s as entertaining and thought-provoking as this one. You’ll laugh, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll cry, and you’ll almost certainly think about the potential for Abraham Lincoln fanfic in a whole new way.