There’s not a lot to be said for Caridad Svich’s “Twelve Ophelias,” a very small meditation on Hamlet set in an Appalachian backwater, but if you pass up the chance to schlep out to Williamsburg for the free production, you’ll miss one wonderful thing: a hooky five-piece bluegrass/roots band called the Jones Street Boys, which provides the play’s most authentic Smoky Mountain grace notes, despite the fact that none of its members hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line.
In the middle of McCarren Park Pool’s vast concrete plain, designer Gabe Evansohn demarcates a little oasis with four distinct playing areas: a pier, a wooden shack, a small pool in the middle, and a scaffold up behind the band, giving the drummer a place to bang away in peace.
The show begins with one of those great coups de theatre that have kicked off shows like “Black Watch” in the recent past: the sudden, unexpected appearance of a character or an object draws us in, especially when we can see all around us for hundreds of yards.
Pepper Binkley is Ophelia, Hamlet’s drowned lover, who wakes up after her suicide in an odd Southern-fried fever dream inhabited by a brothel owner named Gertrude (Kate Benson) and prancing redneck-in-drag versions of Rosencrantz (Grace McClean) and Guildenstern (Preston Martin), identified simply as R and G. Horatio, too, is reduced to a consonant — H is played by Ben Beckley — and Hamlet is simply called “Rude Boy” (Dan Cozzens).
Already, Svich has given away the game: She’s really into reductionism, chopping away most of the letters and all of the subtext from at least one of Shakespeare’s most complex characters. Accordingly, “Twelve Ophelias” doesn’t really have a plot, just a lot of pretentious symbols to which motivation, character, and emotion play a very soft second fiddle.
But who needs fiddles when you have such impressive mandolins and harmonicas? Danny Erker and John Hull, respectively, make those instruments sing, and though they don’t have quite as much success making the cast sing, the band’s contagious harmonies and musical flourishes infuse what would otherwise be a draggy, joyless production with a strangely happy jangle of well-crafted tunes.
Director Teddy Bergman and his designers give the play itself what little life it has, aided by their surroundings — McCarren Park Pool is undoubtedly a neato venue for any aspiring experimental theater troupe. Bergman can ominously bring in the characters from yards offstage; Jessica Pabst can dress some of her actors in flowing garments to make use of the inevitable wind; the whole crew can use the encroaching darkness that falls shortly after the 8 p.m. curtain time.
Bergman and company have tried all these tactics and more, and with a lot of help, the irritations of “Twelve Ophelias” eventually fade into the background behind the vigorous, rich swell of a finger-pickin’ good band.