Depending on the point of view of the audience member, Jane Martin’s striking and deeply moving “H2O” can be viewed as either a play within a play or a remarkable retelling of the “Tragedy of Hamlet.” After its successful world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the play is currently running at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. For this reviewer, “H2O” is best understood as a retelling of the iconic Shakespeare tragedy. A retelling is not an adaptation. A rich retelling strips the story to the bone – indeed to the marrow – and discovers the core, the nucleus, the DNA of the original work and creates a new story with the same genetic makeup but in a new frame that displays the “painting” in a whole new and often unexpected way.
After achieving monumental success in the film industry, Jake (Alex Podulke) is cast in a Broadway revival of “Hamlet.” This role is given to him based on the acclaim he garnered in Hollywood and not necessarily on his ability to perform Shakespeare on the Great White Way. His reputation gives him the opportunity to cast for the role of Ophelia. Deborah (Diane Mair) – a novice actor in New York City – decides to audition for the role at Jake’s apartment. Deborah is an evangelical Christian who takes her faith and her acting very seriously. In fact, she is an actor not of her own choice. “Jesus spoke to me and told me acting was my service and my way. I was in the New York Public Library looking at a first folio of Shakespeare's and God spoke to me. No, it wasn't a voice exactly but it was clear and decisive, ‘I am the Son of David and this work you must continue.’”
This monologue is delivered in spotlight, a device used effectively throughout the play separating the inner life of the actors from their action on stage (kudos to Travis McHale for his brilliant lighting design). After the monologue, Deborah enters Jake’s apartment and discovers he has attempted suicide – as did the character he has been hired to play. When Deborah visits Jake in the hospital, it becomes clear he resents her attempt to rescue him and equally clear that Deborah intends to rescue him and offer him the opportunity to achieve salvation - much like the relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet. Under West Hyler’s intricate and inspired direction, Ms. Mair and Mr. Podulke transcend traditional understandings of developing characters and are at the same moment Deborah and Jake and also Ophelia and Hamlet – a remarkable achievement achieved with brilliant authenticity and believability. The audience cares for Deborah and Mark and for Ophelia and Hamlet in profoundly new ways.
Deborah and Jake engage in a splendid and exhausting relationship, pushing and pulling at each other and each other’s Weltanschauung and struggling to comprehend the depth of Jake’s deeply depressive state and his issues with self-esteem and Deborah’s “do right” attitude (not unlike her biblical counterpart Deborah in the book of Judges) and her shallow understanding of “redemption and release.” Through the use of dramatic irony, the audience becomes aware of Deborah and Jake morphing in and out of their doppelgangers Ophelia and Hamlet. What the audience cannot anticipate is that ultimately Jake/Hamlet morphs into Deborah/Ophelia – a transformation accomplished with the quintessence of skill and tenderness. One iconic character becomes the other (Hamlet 2 Ophelia). Over time. With subtlety. It is not possible to say more without requiring a spoiler alert. It is difficult to understand how Mr. Podulke and Ms. Mair manage to strive to be the characters they already “are.”
“H2O” addresses the important themes of confession, redemption, and salvation within the context of relationships and the community. The important play raises enduring and rich questions about the meaning of forgiveness and unconditional love. Deborah strives to “save” Jake without understanding her own need to forgive and Jake strives to “love” Deborah without comprehending the depth of his own despair. It is rare to see two actors creates characters with such precision and understanding. “H2O” has a short run – through December 13 only – and is a must see. Audiences will leave the theatre not quite knowing who they are or who they might become. And – for just a moment – that is a good thing.
Produced by Ground UP Productions, “H2O” is at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues) for a limited engagement through Sunday, December 13. The design team includes David Arsenault (set design), Travis McHale (lighting design), Whitney Locher (costume design), and Toby Algya (sound design). The production stage manager is Devan Hibbard. Production photos are by David Arsenault.
The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7:15 PM; Friday at 8:15 PM; Saturday at 2:15 PM & 8:15 PM; and Sunday at 3:15 PM. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org. Running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes without an intermission.
WITH: Diane Mair and Alex Podulke