James Parenti’s exciting new play May Violets Spring, produced by Dare Lab, begins its run at Shetler Studios on April 16. Violets is a reworking of Hamlet as seen from the point of view of Ophelia. It combines pieces of the original Shakespearean text with other source texts and new material written by Parenti in order to give Ophelia voice a greater power in the narrative.
I (Sara) find the process of adapting source material into new works, and I jumped at the chance to interview Parenti about his piece. We talked about his journey from actor to playwright and mind-melded on what it’s like to adapt Shakespeare, how to give voice to characters, and how much we both love/hate James Franco.
LMezz: So tell us a little more about May Violets Spring?
James Parenti: It’s an adaptation of Hamlet I didn’t set out to make an adaptation. I just set out to tweak the story a hair because I was in a position to [act] in a production of Hamlet. Obviously I said, yes! It’s an actor’s dream. But I’ve also always been keenly aware of people’s voices being under-represented in theater and in general so when I was going through it, just doing pre-work as an actor, I found that there are these two amazing female characters, Ophelia and Gertrude, who have these great scenes but were grossly under-represented. So I thought it would be really cool and tell a potentially slightly stronger story if, let’s say Ophelia is onstage during the soliloquies, if instead of it being Hamlet talking to the audience, Hamlet is talking to his best friend or girlfriend. And then she could answer, like she can share this line, and it can be a conversation instead of a tirade. Then, when I brought that to my director at the time, she was like, ‘this is such a deep rabbit hole and there’s so much more to unpack there. That’s a new piece, it’s not just a new production. You can explore that.’ So, it started out with them sharing the soliloquies and then I started bringing in text from other plays, like Cymbeline and Twelfth Night. And then I got to this point where Shakespeare kind of ended and I had to write my own text to fill in the gaps. I’ve always been interested in words but I had never considered myself a playwright. It was kind of something that happened of necessity. When the [original Shakespearean text] ended, I had to build something new and then that gained its own momentum and snowballed and I realized that Ophelia is actually the protagonist of this new story. So I had to cut out all the other stuff that we don’t need, so there’s a lot less Hamlet, there’s a lot less of the political intrigue and more of the domestic story. So it’s Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view. For the most part, it follows the canon events unless you specifically see something otherwise happening.
LM: So you addressed some of this already, but do you have any more to add about what your journey from actor to playwright was like?
JP: I went into it thinking it was still going to be a story about Hamlet and then I realized after a year or so that I really needed to let go of that. I needed to get out of his head and into hers. And that was probably the hardest transition to make–to look at these scenes and say, Hamlet is not the vehicle for it; Ophelia’s driving it. She’s in charge of it. Her decisions are ultimately going to change the world of the play.
LM: Did you look to any other sources for inspiration on that? Because there are a few things that have a similar mission, like Wide Sargasso Sea, which reworks Jane Eyre from the point of view of the ‘mad woman in the attic.’
JP: I’m aware of that kind of stuff and I know somebody wrote a young adult version of basically the same idea ten or fifteen years ago, just called Ophelia. It was a great little book. But I haven’t gone to other sources to see how they handle it. Once I figured out that everything had to be from her point of view, everything kind of fell into place naturally.
LM: So, on Broadway lately there’s been a trend of adapting movies and other source material into musicals They usually stick pretty closely to the original text and it’s pretty much a blatant money-making strategy. But do you think there’s any worth in using source material to launch an adaptation as opposed to writing a completely new piece?
JP: Yes I do actually. Obviously, it depends on what your goals as a theater artist are. Doing something entirely new has a ton of value. I think there’s too much of the jukebox musical thing happening, and sequels and remakes… I would like to see more original work personally. But I also think when you’re dealing with an adaptation and you’re working with something so well established, there’s already a shorthand in the stuff. You can cover a lot more ground in a lot less time. You don’t have to spend all this time going, ‘Hamlet is this prince, and his father died and it actually turns out that it’s his uncle..” You don’t have to do all that because it’s already in the consciousness of the audience, it’s already known what’s going on, so you can cover more ground faster. You also have the opportunity to deal with expectations. People come in and say, ‘okay, what do I know already? I know Ophelia drowns and that’s it” and you get the opportunity to decide whether you’re going to play into expectations or challenge them. It’s really like joining a conversation instead of starting a new one. So it depends on what the goals of the production are. When it comes to something like Bullets Over Broadway, (I haven’t seen it yet) if it’s just doing the exact same thing as the movie but on stage, I don’t think that has enough value to warrant an adaptation. I think you have to have a new point of view on the piece. Maybe like, “I want to bring out this thread or shed this color on it.” It sounds to me like that’s what the new Heathers is, like they know the original and they’re commenting on it rather than just duplicating it.
LM: Have you always been interested in adaptations? Even in film or literature?
JP: Yea, actually I think I have come to think of it. Not consciously. There’s this wealth of great material to look at and I’ve always had pretty strong points of view on where a piece falls short or where something could be brought out. Like, Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies, and I’ve always thought, it’s such a great movie but it’s so imperfect. And I’ve always thought that maybe if somebody could do it on stage or do it in a new movie in a way that fills in these gaps to present the story more fully, that that’s worth an adaptation. I think because I’m an actor first rather than a playwright first, I’m always stepping into other people’s worlds and making them work, rather than coming up with new worlds. So I think because I’m an actor that eased my way into adaptation.
LM: I’ve always wanted to write a screenplay for The Sound and the Fury but James Franco beat me to it.
JP: Son of a bitch. Have you seen [his other adaptation of a novel by William Faulkner] As I Lay Dying?
LM: No I haven’t. I want to re-read the book before I see it.I have this weird relationship with James Franco where I don’t know whether to hate him or totally admire him.
JP: I know exactly what you mean. I think he’s a genius, I just don’t know if he’s an evil genius. Did you see him as James Dean?
LM: Oh no. Like, his first thing?
JP: He was amazing! I loved him in that. And then he spent so much time doing the weird Apatow, just sort of douchey guy role, but he has so much more, you know?
LM: Yes! I watched Spring Breakers yesterday with my sister and it was very, um, interesting. I don’t know what I thought about it. But he was great in it. I thought, ‘This is what you should be doing!’
JP: He’s capable of doing incredible work, doesn’t always choose to.
LM: Also, sometimes his execution is off. The idea is there but the execution doesn’t play out.
JP: I was watched the deleted scenes and the commentary or something from Freaks and Geeks a couple years ago and they were talking about how some of that show was improvised, that they let them be loose with the text a lot, and how nine out of ten times, he would improvise something amazing. And then on the tenth time, he’d be on like f*cking Mars. Like, “What is James doing right now?” Hopefully he does something good. I want to see Of Mice and Men.
LM: Yea, I do too. Anyways, we don’t have to include this whole James Franco conversation in the official interview. Aw, well maybe we should. I don’t know.
JP: I think that’s fine. I think you’ll be okay.
LM: So you co-created a theater company called The Other Mirror, which is specifically about re-imagining classic works, though not re-writing them from another point of view per se.
JP: Yea, so we did Madame Bovary a couple of years ago. And on a really technical level, the novel is from her husband’s point of view because he’s kind of the bookend of the story. We ended up losing that and telling it all from her but you still get so much of her story that it’s not really from another point of view. That was another thing born out of necessity. We wanted to do new plays. We didn’t want to do something established, but none of us were writers. Or none of us were writers first, so like we had all these ideas for pieces that were born out of something else, so we did Bovary, we developed Violets for a little while, and they’re working on a piece based on the writing of E.M. Forster. Violets was the only one that was a play adapted from a play, whereas everything else was taken from classic novels and literature.
LM: Is there any significance to the title?
JP: The central question of the play is if a story with these givens has to end in tragedy. So it’s not violets are springing, it’s not full bloom or something like that. It’s the belief that from what we have here, something good might be able to come – the hope that something good will come rather than death and doom and cracked earth. Even though things are bad, we have hope that something potentially worthwhile can grow.
LM: Is there something about Shakespeare that lends itself to adaptation?
JP: Oh yea, absolutely. It’s such a rich universe, not only each individual play, but even in the canon of his works, there’s so much richness, so many threads to be pulled out, and so many different points of view, and so many beautiful characters that don’t get their say. There’s always more to be pulled from it. We’ve been doing The Tempest, and Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for 400+ years because there’s always more to be gotten out of it. People still do plays like this because not only they’re actors’ dreams, but also because there’s this eternal search of finding what you think is there but that you can’t quite grasp.
LM: I was thinking about Wide Sargasso Sea and how Jean Rhys, the author, is really performing a criticism of Jane Eyre. The book can be read as a sort of angry response to Jane Eyre for taking away Bertha Mason’s voice. Do you feel similarly towards Shakespeare when you think about Ophelia’s voice? Do you hold him responsible?
JP: That’s a great question. Yea, I do feel a little bit like Shakespeare and Hamlet are to blame for this one.
LM: They really dropped the ball…
JP: But really, he did. And I mean, to be fair, it’s a four-and-a-half hour work as it is, it’s pretty f*cking long, and Shakespeare has his priorities. But he’s given himself the responsibility of dealing with these amazing characters he’s created, like Ophelia and Gertrude. And he’s fallen short of the task he set himself which is to make them full and complete people who get their own life. And the sane can be said of other characters in the play– Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Tom Stoppard did that. And Fortinbras is a really interesting character and he doesn’t really get his time on stage. And what’s Horatio’s point of view on all this stuff? It feels like this impossible task of peopling this universe with really fully richly realized people and I think he falls short of that. Also, I think part of it is that the roles were played by men when it was written, but so many of these characters that get slighted so frequently are female characters. Cleopatra is an amazing character but she only has so much stage time. I guess they thought that since it’s a younger actor playing this role, he’s not going to be as developed an actor take as much stage time as a Macbeth. So frequently the roles that are slighted are women’s roles and I blame him for that. Not cool. And I guess, not blame as he should have done better, but with 400 years of history, we should do better. We owe it to these roles, to these women, to theater audiences, to our own psyches to let these people have their voices.
LM: That’s interesting. I never really considered the materialist side of this– like the practical fact that younger, inexperienced actors played the female parts.
JP:Yea, and that’s something I forget a lot about. Juliet was not played by a young woman, or even by a seasoned actor, it was a young guy at the time. I also think that there was probably a lot more doubling happening with roles than we’re aware of. From what I’ve heard and can tell, they would have had to do it with as few actors as possible, the same way that with Off-Off Broadway, you have to do it with as few actors as possible.
LM: Greek tragedies were like that.
JP: Yea, three actors.
LM: I used to have to diagram plays for a Greek tragedy class and figure out how the three actors played all the roles.
JP: Yea and that brings up all these cool things, like how in Clytemnestra, the guy who’s Agamemnon also has to play Aegisthus. By necessity, you’re getting the same actor’s voice in both roles so it’s telling a sort of story in itself through the doubling.
LM: And it also means that you can’t have a scene with them together.
JP: Right. And it’s interesting. We can create more work for actors if you cast two different people, but you’re also maybe missing out on some of the resonance.
LM: Are there any other characters whose point of view you’d like to explore?
JP: Yea. There’s a ton of new material for Ophelia. She has a couple of soliloquies and a lot of new scenes. But a lot of the material is also for Horatio (who is a girl) and Gertrude so we’re getting this parallel universe of the way these women are conducting themselves in the world that has already been set up. So in this particular world, I’m very interested in Gertrude’s voice, I’m very interested in new Horatio’s voice. Obviously, I’m also interested in Hamlet, but somebody already wrote that real good and that already exists in our consciousness. We can put that to the side for a minute and focus on this other stuff. Did you mean just in this play or also in general?
LM: Well yea, in general too. Any other Shakespearean characters or characters from other works?
JP: Cleopatra would be awesome. I actually have a buddy who is working right now on a new adaptation of just the arc from Antony and Cleopatra and bring in Julius Caesar. Cleopatra is somebody we can see a lot more of. Lady Macbeth is someone we can see a lot more of. Outside of Shakespeare, I’m really interested in the girl who’s the female lead in Blade Runner, it’s a character named Rachel, who I think is just really interesting and could use a lot more voice.
Tickets for May Violets Spring here!