Maybe the only way the play Hamlet could ever make sense is to filter it through a teenaged girl perspective. Watching a 30-year-old man galumph and philosophize his way through Elsinore – casually brutalizing his girlfriend, staging the world’s first Fringe play, murdering several people, mooning over his mother – all of this starts to feel embarrassing, and self-indulgent. Especially from a grown-up, regardless of unresolved Oedipal issues.
There’s something fresh and exciting in Alexandra Petri’s destruction/deconstruction of the received Hamlet – this too-precious monolithic artifact from the 16th century that has taught straight white boys the finer points of gaslighting for personal gain. Her to tell my story: a hamlet fanfic is a riotously perfect send-up of Shakespeare’s play, as well as a poignant exploration of that peculiar and universal loneliness of adolescence. “I am something sad that happened to somebody else,” a character tells us. “All that’s left of me are the parts other people saw,” echoes another.
Petri sets her play in high school and the baffling/inclusive/exclusive/horny/Puritanical world of online fan-fiction. Fan-fiction is that thing where you pretended Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John would spend a little too long not-looking-but-looking at each other in the shower after a shift of whatever they did (medicine?) before finding themselves intensely holding hands in the moonlight. Like, really holding hands. Hands so held it could start a fire. Or it’s where you wonder what would happen if Harry Potter from the Harry Potter books met, oh, I don’t know, maybe, like, a dragon, just off the top of my head, from Game of Thrones and they start out kind of mad at each other and you think they’re going to be enemies on account of a rivalry based in how mad they are but then something happens like a stolen glance or how hands can sometimes caressingly touch while reaching for the same goblet and then that, too, can lead to a LOT of intense hand-holding, probably in the moonlight, and then later to a specific kind of physical understanding that surpasses all other understanding.
Fan-fiction is a kind of control. It’s taking two characters, usually guys, and making them kiss, usually each other. (And if one of those guys is also the killer whale, Willy, from the movie Free Willy, your only job is to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.) While we’re moving away from most things being gendered, fan-fiction has a surprisingly robust female creative base – a demographic that, as it turns out, at least as of five minutes ago, is talked over, around, and through, without being given the chance for much agency. Fan-fiction is, then, a way to balance that scale. “I’m doing this to Jacob and Edward” is much more empowering than “this was done to me.” Erotic, narrative, philosophical exploration is limited only by the imagination (and whether or not your parents limit your time online).
Elsie (a remarkable and heartbreaking Annie Ottati) is a teenage master of fan-fiction, working across a variety of canvases: sometimes it’s making the boys from Harry Potter make out; sometimes it’s Abraham Lincoln and his especial male friend Joshua Speed; sometimes it’s a vampire and a werewolf ignoring a girl in an army green jacket as they appreciate each other appreciatively; and sometimes all of these pairings are really just ways for Elsie to work on her own heart’s yearnings for her friend Ophelia (Sarah Taurchini). Maybe we’re all queer as teenagers because hormones make everything erotic and sexy and confusing when they’re not making everything pimply and unstable and confusing. But the mind and body of a teenage girl is infinitely more risky, more powerful, more dangerous, and more worth saving than any square inch of Denmark.
Horatio (Chloe Mikala, deftly handling a complicated frenemy role) offers encouragement to Elsie’s online fan-fiction proclivities (all brought to hysterical and scene-stealing life by Shravan Amin and Colin Connor) when they overlap with her self-interests (specifically Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed touching each other’s bathing suit areas), and then spikes that encouragement when there’s social capital to be made off of it by posting mean-spirited pictures of Elsie and Ophelia online. This exploration of Cool Teen aloofness coupled with Actual Teen fear and anxiety is a highlight of Petri’s writing. And the stakes feel as real as they do because Ottati, Taurchini, and Mikala aren’t caricaturing and satirizing the teens they’re inhabiting, but instead endow these girls with intelligence, wit, confusion, and a desperate kind of hope.
Petri uses the building blocks of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – youth’s dead father delivers a message of conspiracy that suggests he was murdered; youth equivocates for h o u r s before solving the murder mystery not through any sleuthing or detective work, but by skulking and hiding around the castle before making everyone sit through the play he wrote – to give structure to her play. Elsie’s father, too, has died, and, in Elsie’s mind, under mysterious circumstances that seem to point to her stepfather, Claude (also Connor), as a culprit. (Elsie’s dead father may or may not have sent her a supernatural SnapChat from beyond the grave (and please never tell me what a SnapChat is; I’ve been ever so good and know so many other things that maybe this can stay a Young Person’s gift. Would you like a Werther’s?)
Where before, Elsie had used fan-fiction as a creative outlet to work through her own romantic and erotic inclinations, she now feels there might be value in using fan-fiction as the means of discovering what really happened to her father. Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed no longer admire the curves and sinews of each other’s form in these newer pieces Elsie writes. Instead, at the moment where they would usually melt into kisses, they now wonder who could be behind the mysterious carbon monoxide poisoning of Elsie’s dad.
Petri’s script is strongest when it only slyly references its source material. Where it leans in, though, is where the momentum slows and the seams start to show. There are maybe two too many suicides in Petri’s script that, with everything else happening, feel resolved too quickly. The deaths are all based in the source play, but seem to undermine the story Petri is telling, which feels more anchored in agency and autonomy rather than in the try-to-make-a-sequel-out-of-this style that Shakespeare’s play ends with. There’s enough emotional work being done, and done superbly, by an extraordinary cast – there are literally no missed swings here – that some of the closing beats around teen suicide don’t land as well as they could, and end up distracted by the comedy that insists on bubbling through Petri’s satiric writing.
Megan Behm has thought through this script carefully, guiding her actors across fraught waters and getting jaw-droppingly good performances out of everyone. Behm’s directing, coupled with Veronica J. Lancaster’s witty and necessary projection design (the online action is projected onto a screen that dominates the back of the stage in much the same way our virtual lives can dominate our free time) bring this world to life while also whispering some disappointments about the effect all of this has on the heartbroken and vulnerable.
Questions about whose story is being told flavor the opening and closing of to tell my story. For teenagers, that question looms larger than it should. As teens we can care more about what’s being told by others about us than we care about what effect we’re having in the world. Fan-fic is an attempt to fix not only what we might think is broken in the fictional world(s) where the story is set, but in our own, as well. “I can save Middle Earth.” “I am Nigel Longbottom’s brief bright hope.” “But none of this could have been solved without me.” If that question – who is telling my story, and to whom, and to what end – isn’t resolved in Petri’s play, it’s only because it’s a question that can’t be solved, only survived, and marveled at later, when those moments matter less.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
to tell my story: a hamlet fanfic plays through July 30, 2017 at The Welders performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theater – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.