Shakespeare did a pretty good job with "Hamlet," don't you think? Packed it with plenty of palace intrigue, intergenerational strife, existential angst, and even a chilling portrait of young love gone awry. So why would a contemporary playwright - Steven Berkoff - want to go the Bard one better and purport to reveal, in clumsy pseudo-Elizabethan blank verse no less, what really went on between Hamlet and Ophelia?
"The Secret Love Life of Ophelia," a 2001 Edinburgh Fringe foray receiving a modest New England premiere under the aegis of the Nora Theatre at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, is not so much a backstory as a behind-the-scenes, between-the-sheets story - the sheets being the missives exchanged between the pair, because in this version, they scarcely meet and only once touch. The never-quite-lovers interact solely by mail, except for one fleeting moment when they wordlessly mime the repudiation scene.
At the appropriate juncture, Hamlet (Aaron Pitre, possessing a dancer's grace and rich, musical diction; the Actors' Shakespeare Project ought to pluck him up immediately) gives Ophelia (Stacy Fischer, whose quasi-Goth spiked coiffure, not to mention modern gestures and intonations, seem at odds with her bodiced gown) a mighty shove that sends her flying to the floor. Subtle. But - get this - their falling out is just an act! Because, as we have learned from their correspondence, Ophelia, with a cunning usually reserved for heroines of high-school movies, has come up with a clever ruse: They're just pretending to be on the outs, so as to throw the meddling adults of the court off their all-too-hormonal scent.
That's the entire thrust of the alterna-plot, such as it is. Ersatz Shakespeare is, by definition, second-rate Shakespeare. If your goal is to extinguish the slightest glimmer of dramatic tension, one further strategem would be to opt for an epistolary format and hew faithfully to it.
For one brief moment, perhaps 10 minutes into this 80-minute exercise, when the young lovers wax absurdly metaphorical about their burgeoning lust (Hamlet moans: "My lava seeks to jet from out its rock"), there's a glimmer of hope that the playwright's intent might be parodic.
No such luck. Berkoff - whose lengthy curriculum vitae seems to have peaked with the 1994 Joan Collins film "Decadence" - is in deadly earnest. One begins to pity the poor actors, forced to lavish their attention on the driveling, derivative circumlocutions of the text. Their best efforts can't seem to wrest the slightest resonance from this contrived and bungled ripoff, which brings to mind those TV commercials that resurrect, willy-nilly, some hapless deceased celebrity.
Shakespeare deserves better; we deserve better. Ryan McGettigan provides an eloquent, minimalist set, a circle of boardwalk surrounding a shimmering pool. You can guess how the water will be put to use. But until Hamlet and Ophelia start their intensive pen-palling - they ultimately pant their way to letter-sex - the set offers a pleasant object for contemplation. At the very end of the play, an audio excerpt of Gertrude relating the details of Ophelia's death (lifted from the 1948 Olivier film) packs more power into a few wondrous phrases than all the bluster that has gone before.