Neurotic writers manipulating their self-aware fictional characters isn’t a new device, but unlike similar stories, The Bard’s Town’s funny and engaging “Chasing Ophelia” isn’t concerned with picking the navel of the writer’s creative processes or artistic tensions. For a romantic comedy, this play’s concerns are remarkably, well, theological: is an unseen, omniscient being really in charge of us, and how do we deal with feeling abandoned by him?
Written by Doug Schutte and directed by Scot K. Atkinson, “Chasing Ophelia” made its world premiere in May 2011 as The Bard’s Town Theatre’s debut production. Executive director Schutte and artistic director Atkinson have made a name for their small theater in the meantime, so they decided a remount was in order to give new patrons a chance to see what their early, loyal audience voted “Best Theatrical Production” in the 2011 LEO Readers Choice Awards.
In the program notes, Schutte divulges that the idea for his play developed while he sat in rehearsals for “A Comedy of Errors” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre a few years back. Fitting, as “Chasing Ophelia” uses Shakespeare’s plays as a measuring stick for the shadowy creative work of the unseen, absentee “creator” of the three characters we meet at the top of the play. But it’s not just a meta romp through a trove of English-major jokes. “Chasing Ophelia” asks some heavy questions about destiny vs. agency along with standard romantic comedy concerns about fighting for the one you love.
Ned (Ryan Watson) is born at the top of the show, a character in name only. Ned knows he has been written, but he doesn’t know who he is or what his story will be. When a script is delivered by Joseph (John Scheker) – who will become Ned’s knowing spiritual guide, a sort of Obi Wan Kenobi of intertextuality, over the course of the play – Ned’s big dreams of heroism are squelched. “It seems you’re an Everyman,” Joseph tells him. (Womp, womp.)
Ned gets his story’s title, “Chasing Ophelia.” He knows he’s going on a date. The rest of the pages are blank. Joy (the always appealing Beth Tantanella) shows up for the blind date and the two characters, with nothing else to do, fall in love. Tensions kick in when Joy begins to wonder what lies beyond their shabby, unfinished neighborhood – other characters she’s played in other stories? – while Ned figures it’s up to them to make the best of what little they have. Joy fixates on Hamlet’s Ophelia as her ür-character and leaves her half-written world for the world of the masterpieces, with Ned in pursuit.
Schutte, Jason Cooper and Tad Timberlake play the host of askew literary characters Ned and Joy encounter along the way, from Shakespeare’s Romeo (Cooper) to his assheaded “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” fool Nick Bottom (Timberlake). Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz (Schutte) and Guildenstern (Cooper) show up, as well as Elizabethan playwright/Shakespeare rival Christopher Marlowe (Schutte, in a pivotal turn), forming a layer cake of intertextuality and meta-commentary on the literary canon.
Five of the six original actors return for this production, and their familiarity with the show and comfort with each other as an ensemble are evident in the tightness of their timing and ability to shift effortlessly between literary and vernacular tones. (Cooper is especially handy with the well-placed off-hand quip.) Ned employs direct address to the audience frequently, so he’d better be likable, and thankfully, Watson never allows Ned’s neuroses to overpower his Everyman appeal.
The first act is tight and laugh-out-loud funny, and while the comedy is consistently good throughout the second half, some of the scenes and extended jokes could be condensed to move the story along once the audience understands how the world on stage works — not every literary joke, however delicious, needs to stay in the final edit.
“Chasing Ophelia” runs through March 3 in the theater above the restaurant/bar (1801 Bardstown Rd). There’s even a 5:30 p.m. show this Sunday, which lets out right as the Oscars party swings into gear downstairs.