Susan and Bella, two students at UC Berkeley who are twin sisters, keep on getting pregnant – their pregnancy represented by red balloons — and they keep on popping “M&Ms” – not the candy, the abortion pills Mifepristone and Misoprostol.
This is “alt-Hamlet” in a nutshell — an in-your-face, vaudeville-infused dark comedy billed as “a post-Roe satire,” which is meant to be pointed, but winds up confusing. Are we supposed to find Susan and Bella’s repeated pregnancies and abortions amusing? A spoof on the way abortion opponents see pro-choice advocates? A theatrical act of defiance? It is not clear to me. By the end of this overlong, overstuffed play, despite some barbed wit and a game and lively cast wrapped in some colorful costumes, the confusion has only grown.
Why, you might ask, is this play called “alt-Hamlet”?
Writer and director Suzanne Willett explains her reasoning in the program: “This show is a response to the erosion of women’s rights in their own bodies. I picked Hamlet as this vehicle because Hamlet centers on a pre-Elizabethan view of inheritance (a right) that was being challenged; in alt Hamlet, women’s agencies over their bodies (a right) is being challenged.”
If her reasoning sounds to you like a stretch, so is her adaptation, though at times meticulous and inventive. Some of the allusions to “Hamlet” in “alt-Hamlet” are clever, such as several throwaway lines that glance at some of the Bard’s best-known soliloquys. Some of the allusions are silly: Their hometown is a hamlet called Hamlet. Most of them are convoluted: That’s the best way to describe the alteration of the Bard’s plotlines – far too convoluted for me to recap here. But I’ll give you a taste: The ghost of Susan and Bella’s mother Gloria B. tells them their father had her committed to a mental institution because of her advocacy on behalf of abortion, and then had her murdered.
Their father Mitchell is the CEO of a subscription streaming service that destroyed the DVD industry, and if that’s not evil enough, he and his new wife (the sister of his murdered first wife) are building a church in their hometown that will advocate against abortion, specifically M&Ms. He has insisted that Susan and Bella come home. His new wife Ginni, suspicious of her nieces Susan and Bella, wants to have them murdered. Instead, Mitchell enlists his lawyer Thomas and Thomas’s two daughters to destroy their reputations – to “cancel” them — via Facebook and TikTok. “Social media is proven to convict more decisively than a jury.”
Social media takes an extensive drubbing. Also worked into the play at some length is economics – malevolently when discussed by the men. Here’s Mitchell: “I commissioned a study that proves forced pregnancy reduces labor supply, allowing us to hire outside newcomers at reduced wage rates.”) This observation began to lose me when he got into the numbers (“Given that there were approximately 930,000 abortions last fiscal year, that would give us…5.6 Trillion or approximately 3% of the GDP….”)
But the use of economics is amusing and something close to thought-provoking when discussed by Susan: ” I came to Berkeley like any rich student—drinking and studying. Self-actualization. And yet, all the drinking and psychology revealed this question: am I simply the sum of my childhood wounds? For once I took Econ 101, I realized perhaps I was the sum of my choices. Choices rooted in valuation of course, but nevertheless a choice. It was as if I found myself living in a new structure that I never knew existed.”
Players Theatre through September 24
Running time: one hour 50 minutes with no intermission
Tickets $50 – $72
Written and directed by Suzanne Willett.
Lighting by Zach Dulny, set design by Nadie King, props by Lara Knopf, costumes by Gabrielle Marino
Cast: Alessandro Caronna as Mitchell, Yuliya Donovan as Ginni/Gloria B, Davon Howard as Thomas, Leah Barker as Susan, Miranda Renée as Bella, Katy Shafer as Charlotte and Emily Ann Banks as Phyllis.