Dallas — No one knows why but the suicide rate among girls in the United States ages 10-14 tripled over the last 15 years. The National Center for Health Statistics (which is part of the CDC) highlighted these findings in April of this year. In an interview with TheaterJones about her new one-woman play Ophelia Underwater, Janielle Kastner suggested that regarding teenage girls, “I think they are the most underutilized demographic in the United States.”
Kastner’s play, presented by The Tribe and now onstage at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park, takes us inside the silent world of the young female—her thoughts. This is not a retelling of Ophelia’s story in Shakespeare’s Hamlet for after all, that Ophelia was constructed through the eyes of a male. Through Kastner’s play we are asked to ponder what is asked of the female as she tries to live separate and apart from the role defined for her by a society largely though not entirely shaped through the male perspective.
Director Carson McCain’s vision for this piece is unapologetically intellectual but at the same time refreshingly artistic and historical. Preston Gray’s set pulls in the styles of a few of the art world’s most renowned video installation artists. Downstage right is a Nam June Paik-inspired small cluster of ’90s television sets for the video characterizations. Bill Viola and perhaps Pipilotti Rist come to mind when watching the video of Ophelia’s descent underwater on the large screen center stage. All of this video movement is accompanied by a fabulous dually suggestive soundscape. The sounds of water as womb and as tomb. This duality matches the thematic dualities within the script i.e. her treasure chest of memories becoming a coffin of memories.
This is the simmering work space for Zöe Kerr’s intelligent and well-reasoned work as Ophelia. Her fellow actors are the voices of the mostly unseen. The one exception is a clever social media-style poke to The Bard, he whose username is H_dane821 (Matt Clark). Her older female advisor, Nanny, is voiced by Lulu Ward. As was Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Kastner’s Ophelia is heavily influenced by her brother (voice of Jacob Stewart) and her father (voice of Kieran Connolly). Women and young girls sometimes find themselves defined by their sexuality in particular by the men in their lives. In Ophelia’s instance, this is through her brother and father.
Ophelia is communicating with the audience mid-drowning, a short time before it is too late for her to be saved. She begins her life story by telling us she was born in October, fraughtfully born. What does that mean, exactly? Among the messages she received were that women had to be experts on seasons, that it was critical to “make sure someone picks you” and that she should “nail down a man” before autumn.
Kastner incorporates the contemporary risks presented through social media for females, in particular, slut-shaming even for the innocent. Ophelia was continually told that she was a beautiful girl, something to be looked at, not listened to. Not really seen. At one point Ophelia asks “what do you do when they stop looking?” What is the young girl to think when she is no longer the object of the male objectification? Ophelia asks “to suffer no more heartache in this life and after death. Will the name Ophelia be remembered?”
Ophelia became a fatherless daughter and that is not without impact. Kerr is most heartrending during Ophelia’s reflections about her father, in particular about the ritual surrounding his death and funeral. Kerr moves through the character’s emotional kaleidoscope with openness and daring. Because the story is a replay of the time-images in Ophelia’s mind, Kerr has to reflect Ophelia through several ages, and not in chronological order. She shares memories as they come to her. Kerr navigates this without chaos. The storytelling is natural.
Ophelia Underwater, a recipient of one of the Dallas Observer’s Mastermind Grants 2016, which was given to The Tribe, is a timely piece. Given the statistics surrounding teen girl suicides, more of our young girls need to hear one of Ophelia’s repeated messages in the play: “that you are enough.”
» Read our Work in Progress interview with Janielle Kastner