Philly Fringe 2016: Ensemble Atria and EagerRiskTheater’s ‘Drowning Ophelia’

Plumbing the depths

For anyone who knows Hamlet, the title character of Rachel Luann Strayer’s Drowning Ophelia seems the obvious key to the eerie hour-long drama, co-produced by Ensemble Atria and EagerRisk Theater. Ophelia, of course, is Hamlet’s sort-of girlfriend, Laertes’s sister, and Polonius’s daughter. Used by her father and King Claudius in an attempt to figure out what’s wrong with Hamlet, then spurned by Hamlet for her complicity, she goes mad and drowns herself.

To sleep, perchance to dream. (Photo courtesy of EagerRisk Theater)

Then, in Strayer’s script, she shows up in Jane’s bathtub.

Director Daniel Roberts sets the play in The Iron Factory’s warm environs. An office in the corner of the spacious third-floor loft becomes Jane’s apartment wall; central in her tiny home is a claw-footed bathtub and little else. Audience sits on two adjacent sides of the square playing area, lit with stark simplicity.

Who’s that girl?

Childlike Ophelia, played with charming innocence by Lindsay Andreanszky, seems fraught with full-on madness, singing a simple rhyme over and over despite Jane’s protests, splashing around playfully in the half-full tub, spouting much of her Hamlet dialogue (cleverly woven into the script), and eavesdropping with a coy smile. Her entrance is the first of the production’s many low-tech surprises. Victoria Rae Sook’s intense Jane is single and lonely, as evidenced by her strange arrangement with Edmund (Erik Endsley), who arrives weekly as a romantic character (knight, nobleman, Jane Austen hunk) and dines with Jane’s fawning female character, a service for which she pays him. Their dress-up dates end badly, however, because Ophelia is always there, unseen by Edmund, driving Jane batty.

Strayer mixes in flashbacks, in which we gradually glean that Ophelia is young Jane, and was attached to her mysterious older brother Adam (Levi Morger), a well-meaning teenage oaf. Where is Adam now, and why does Jane fight so hard to submerge those memories?

Past and present collide

Roberts’ production builds skillfully. It’s aided by rich yet subtle sound effects designed by Annie R. Such that provide suspense-building echoes of dripping water and moody music. The handful of stage lighting instruments plus one sad, naked bulb hanging over the playing area, design uncredited, are employed with equal finesse. 

Strayer’s well-crafted story builds to a powerful climax in a production notable for its well-chosen playing space, smart low-budget design touches, and committed, nuanced acting. While Ophelia speaks the dialogue that Shakespeare wrote for her over 400 years ago, Drowning Ophelia is a present-day drama that explores timeless truths. 

Our readers respond

Mark Mallecoccio

of Scranton, PA on September 14, 2016

If I remember correctly, the single, naked light bulb is a part of the suggested set design within the text. Therefore, the design credit would go to Mrs. Strayer herself.

Rachel Luann Strayer

of Clarks Summit, PA on September 14, 2016

Thank you, Mark, but the single, naked light bulb was not actually specified in my script and has not been seen before in any other production. While no lighting designer is provided for the show, I'd attribute credit to the joint collaboration of Ensemble Atria, EagerRisk Theatre, director Daniel Roberts, and their production crew. (The bathtub was all my idea, though.) And thank you, Broad Street Review, for such a wonderful review!

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