Four and a half acts or so into Shakespeare's Hamlet, the titular gloomy Danish prince suffers the second tragedy of his young life. Soon after he learns of his father's death, Hamlet's true love, Ophelia, drowns near his castle. As Queen Gertrude, eyewitness to Ophelia's demise, reports:
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Not so fast, Gertrude. What proof do you have that Ophelia drowned? That's one question behind Wild Hair, an innovative, original theater work-in-progress that will be presented at the FlynnSpace this Friday.
Developed by theater artists Robin Fawcett and Jean Taylor, the play picks up where Hamlet left off -- adding a few hundred years. Ophelia is not dead after all, but is working as a docent in New York City's Museum of Natural History. Though she'd prefer to keep her identity a secret, Ophelia wants to dispel the myths surrounding her death. Her museum lecture on "secrets of woodland flora and fauna" provides her with just such an opportunity. As the play progresses, she tells her story to the museum patrons assembled for the talk -- a.k.a. the audience members for the performance of Wild Hair. (Don't worry: The show doesn't rely on audience participation.)
Fawcett, a teaching theater artist affiliated with Champlain Valley Union High School and the Flynn Center, directs Wild Hair. Taylor, a teaching artist at New York's Lincoln Center and elsewhere, plays the part of Ophelia. Though ostensibly delivering her message as a lecture to museumgoers, she uses rough-hewn props and object animation to bring her story vividly to life. Along the way, Taylor's character awakens to a sense of herself as a "wild hair" -- someone willing to question the facts and act upon one's imagination.
In the earliest stages of Wild Hair's development, Fawcett and Taylor explored the metaphor of the cowlick, a literal wild hair. Upon re-reading Queen Gertrude's account of Ophelia's death, the "what if" question cropped up -- the writer's equivalent of a light bulb clicking on above one's head. What if Ophelia wasn't a victim of madness? A close reading of Queen Gertrude's speech, the artists suggest, reveals enough ambiguity to throw the drowning into question. As Taylor says, "We're wondering about agenda and intention in that eyewitness report."
But Wild Hair isn't a rebuttal to Shakespeare's play. "Our goal is not to discount others' interpretations, but to posit the possibility of another one," Fawcett says. "In fact, we need the other interpretations of this story to give context to our alter-interpretation."
The usefulness of entertaining alternate views is as central to Fawcett and Taylor's process in developing Wild Hair as it is to the story itself. In re-imagining Ophelia's life, the artists worked in a highly improvisational mode, moving her all around the globe and through time, as if finding a place for her character "by process of elimination," Fawcett says.
In an early draft of the work, the story began soon after Ophelia's alleged drowning in Denmark -- she swam to Paris and found work in a bar. Bits and pieces of that backstory remain, even though the most recent version is set hundreds of years later. And aside from the huge leap in time, the play aims for realism.
Like its sole character, Wild Hair has also been on a journey. Fawcett and Taylor met through the FlynnArts program in 2000 when both were teaching artists and Taylor was the associate director of education. Their work on Wild Hair began in earnest a couple of years later during Sunday-afternoon brainstorming sessions. Taylor returned to New York City in the summer of 2002, but she and Fawcett continued developing their project long-distance, workshopping it on stages in Manhattan, Warren and now the FlynnSpace.
Alternative interpretations of Ophelia's story square with Wild Hair's philosophical underpinnings. Fawcett and Taylor have been influenced by the writings of Maxine Greene, philosopher-in-residence at the Lincoln Center Institute. Grossly simplified, Greene's views on the imagination suggest that "what if" questions are not the sole domain of artists, but should be applied to all problem-solving situations. Always thinking outside the box, in other words.
Fawcett and Taylor view being a "wild hair" as approaching the world with such openness, and suggest that Ophelia symbolizes this way of thinking. While they were developing their theater piece, Fawcett says, Greene's philosophy came to resonate deeply with Ophelia's story. "We're definitely exploring the role of the imagination as the very means for exploring what truth is, defining what the truth is, and not simply buying what the truth is," she says.
However, Wild Hair was born before its creators began to tap into Greene's philosophy, so the play isn't merely a vehicle for an idea. Neither does one need to have read or seen Hamlet to connect with this play. As Fawcett and Taylor developed Ophelia's need to tell her story within the believable role of a museum docent, an accessible play emerged. High-tech production values yielded to the simple, yet often startlingly effective, techniques of puppetry-like object animation and Taylor's keen sense of dramatic movement, which draws on her extensive clowning experience.
Having kept "that little thread going" over time and amidst other responsibilities, Taylor feels confident the work is evolving. "Last fall, you could feel the wind on our back a little bit," she says. With a week of development time offered by Flynn Center Programming Manager Aimee Petrin, Taylor and Fawcett can further fine-tune Wild Hair before presenting it to the public for the first time.
The play is one of three new works currently receiving development support from the Flynn Center. The other two are Knock on the Sky, an international dance work combining Japanese butoh movement, live music and interactive media, which will be in residence at the Flynn July 25-30; and Merging Art & Science with Susan Sgorbati, an improv dance intensive workshop in residence August 22 - September 1.
The completed version of Wild Hair will premiere at the FlynnSpace in April 2006. Meanwhile, audiences can catch a glimpse of an unusual theater work rich in metaphor and provocative questions. Maybe not "to be or not to be," but something more along the lines of "Yeah? Says who?"