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Theater Review: Ophelia

Deborah Geffner and Stefan Marks in Ophelia. Photo by Baranduin Briggs.

With a title like Ophelia, it would be easy to assume that Stefan Marks’ new play about dementia, loneliness, and grief is a woeful, meditative tear-jerker. And though Marks does carefully examine the tragic nature of these themes, he also unearths a deeper, truer portrait of memory loss and death– one of love, murder, momma’s boys, and science fiction (obviously).

Premiering at The Odyssey Theater in West LA, Ophelia is the newest work of writer/director/actor Stefan Marks, on this occasion wearing all three hats, plus that of co-designer. Produced by Null Set Productions, this existential dramedy packs a punch, running just 95 minutes without intermission. 

Ophelia recounts the life of Mom (Deborah Geffner), a formidable though aging woman, who, with the help of her son (Stefan Marks), is moving into a memory care facility to manage her increasingly debilitating dementia. While sorting through the artifacts of her past and badgering her almost-divorced son about his love life and prospects for procreation, Mom discovers her late husband’s “reset” device– a futuristic gadget that has the ability to rewind time. As the Son begins to develop a new relationship with quirky science fiction writer Her (Tatum Langton), mysterious glitches in time interrupt their would-be love story.

Tatum Langton and Stefan Marks in Ophelia. Photo by Baranduin Briggs.

Underneath the factual plot of Ophelia lies a deeper discussion of aging, memory, and cyclical violence. While the Son is arguably the show’s protagonist, Ophelia hinges on Mom’s past, and between the time-travel and Mom’s own lapses in memory, there is reasonable evidence to believe the entire show, Mom, Son, and Her, are but fragments and memories of Mom’s story, told in the haphazardly sequence of her dementia-induced life review. Though this interpretation is never explicitly confirmed, the production draws frequent parallels between Mom and Her, as well as between the Son and Mom’s physically abusive husband, whom she shot and killed decades prior.

Still, the Son and Her operate as independent characters, and the Son seems to rebel against the idea that he is, or could become, like his abusive father. Himself no spring chicken, the Son is looking for a life partner and the mother to his children, but perhaps not a woman who will shoot and kill him in the next few years. Mom’s advice? “Well don’t come at her with a baseball bat.”

Deborah Geffner in Ophelia. Photo by Baranduin Briggs.

Despite its heavier themes, Ophelia is firmly a dramedy, and not the kind with a joke or two sprinkled amidst dark dramatic irony, but a thoroughly funny production, carried by the heart and banter of its characters. Though she is in active mental and physical decline, Geffner carefully circumvents stereotypes of elderly women, lending Mom a fiery independence and biting bluntness– she is a woman fighting against the cruelty of life and the cruelty of time up until the end. The mother-son relationship is especially engaging, Geffner and Marks bouncing off of each other with zingy comebacks masking earnest concern.

Stefan Marks helms the production as the isolated Son, endearingly awkward with an effective dry wit and dead-pan delivery that sits in stark contrast to the two instances when he definitely characterizes his abusive father (including a striking piece of slam poetry). Tatum Langton has the most difficult job, the character of Her bordering the two-dimensional archetype of the manic pixie dream girl. Despite this limitation, Langton does a commendable job of imbuing this character with a worldly humanity and vivacious charisma, which she nicely juxtaposes against her other character, a crime-obsessed actress who couldn’t care less about marriage, a family, or kids.

Tatum Langton and Stefan Marks in Ophelia. Photo by Baranduin Briggs.

Ophelia delicately balances the abstract with the real emotional growth of its characters, leaving questions about time open to interpretation, but never murky. The “reset device” is underused, introducing more questions than it resolves, especially when the same time-bending effect is already at play due to Mom’s dementia. Repeated scenes are nicely contrasted with each other, though they occasionally go on too long– this particularly true of the last scene, which achieved closure several minutes before its eventual end.

Stylistically, the production capitalizes on a more abstract design that lends itself nicely to fluid, fast-paced nature of the dialogue, timelines, and location changes. The minimalist set (co-designed by Mark Svastics and Stefan Marks) consists of a series of boxes containing Mom’s belongings. After each scene, a box is removed from the stage, literalizing Mom’s mental decline, and slowly revealing a series of letters on the stage (though this secret message feels slightly on the nose).

Stefan Marks in Ophelia. Photo by Baranduin Briggs.

Lighting and sound play a crucial role, especially in the time jumps, and these cues were particularly effective in the show’s hyper stylized sequences (the slam poetry performance, for example). Unfortunately, the showing I attended seemed to incur technical difficulties with a number of distracting mid-scene lighting changes and instances where performers stood in completely unlit sections of the stage. But the show must go on, and if these instances were due to malfunction, the cast and crew never let it rattle them.

Ultimately, Ophelia is a thoroughly entertaining evening, maintaining intrigue and heart throughout. With snappy dialogue reminiscent of David Ives’ All in the Timing, Ophelia is off-beat, charming, and the most hopeful production about dementia I’ve ever seen.

Ophelia runs April 2nd through May 18th at The Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night at 8:00 pm and Saturday afternoons at 3:00pm. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here.

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Sika Lonner
Sika Lonner
Sika Lonner is a Los Angeles based actress and writer. Her training includes Loyola Marymount University (B.A.), Academy of Dramatic Art - University of Zagreb, and Michael Tschechow Studio Berlin.

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