Like so many working artists before Covid lockdowns, Jeanmarie Simpson was in her element with fellow actors, rehearsing a stage version of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. Alas, she wouldn't get the chance to flaunt her version of the Nurse. Barely a week into rehearsals, cast and crew met the commonplace destiny of all works in progress: a dustbin of canceled productions.
Survival tales abound of theater folks calibrating their options in a global pandemic. For an optimist like Jeanmarie, a positive force had to be summoned to assuage her profound shock. Either that or risk creative atrophy.
"I was deeply disappointed, of course," she concedes, "and drowned my sorrows in film versions of Shakespeare. My favorite Hamlet is Zeffirelli's, and while I was watching it I thought that a sequel with them all in Purgatory might be fun."
Personally, a HAMLET binge in a grim season of discontent wouldn't give me a whit of solace, but I appreciate the insight to transform mass carnage into a work of comedy. It makes perfect sense from a therapeutic standpoint. Hence WHEN CHURCHYARDS YAWN is birthed, a whimsical outcome of an otherwise dire circumstance.
The play's setting is particularly intriguing, one the playwright had little trouble conceiving. "The lockdown felt like Purgatory to me," she says. "Suddenly, I could see it - a Divine Comedy a la Dante, and it all but wrote itself."
The script is clever, replete with snide banter befitting a satire of the Bard's illustrious tragedy. We meet the usual suspects - the upright, the guilty, and the aggrieved - primed to settle a score or two. As they move through various gates and a chaotic mess of random earthly objects, actors are made to piece together a set of uneven stairs, a theatrical metaphor devised in real time and inspired by the work of Polish theater artist Tadeusz Kantor.
Jeanmarie has obviously done substantial research. Mind you, Hamlet doesn't presume to own the stage as our playwright is wont to give others their well-deserved agency and voice, no matter how absurd.
Certain voices are more pronounced than others, though, and Jeanmarie is quick to acknowledge her intention. "Definitely the women. I've done the play (HAMLET) four times in the past 22 years - twice as Gertrude, twice as director - and I have had the same bones to pick with Shakespeare each time. When I wrote Churchyards I was able to confront Shakespeare through the voices of Gertrude and Ophelia. Even though there are fewer women in the play than men, it's definitely the women's piece."
Carlisle Ellis (Gertrude), Denise Blum (Ophelia), Ina Shivack (Gatekeeper)
Jeanmarie admits the play's title does have a "delicious" ring to it. It sounds theatrical enough, and it invokes the kind of mystery we dabble in when deconstructing Shakespeare. A notable anecdote from the playwright:
"There's its context in Hamlet - when he's ready to 'drink hot blood and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on.' In the first production I directed, at Piper's Opera House in Virginia City Nevada, something fabulously spooky occurred. The theater hadn't been restored on the inside - It was getting a new roof, but there were still spots where you could see the sky through the cracks and it really was great fun for dark theater. One night a whole slew of bats swooped down over the audience just as Hamlet was saying that section - and they circled him on stage then flew back over the house and out the cranny whence they came. I've always held that passage in my heart as especially magical.
"Beyond that, I imagine when churchyards yawn they expose Purgatory, which is where our play takes place."