While in lockdown during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jeanmarie Simpson followed the example set by Shakespeare while he hunkered down in quarantine during a plague: she wrote a play.
“I was stuck in the house with no end in sight,” said Simpson, a playwright who lives in Arizona, but has connections to Reno and Artown.
“We did a festival last fall, of live performances on Zoom, and one of them was a “Hamlet” sequel. When a friend of mine was interested in doing a production of that sequel but discovered that the rights weren’t available, the idea of Hamlet in purgatory occurred to me, with all the other dead characters from that play.
Simpson’s new play, “When Churchyards Yawn,” is scheduled for a single performance July 17, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Potentialist Workshop, 836 E. Second St., Reno. It’s a free performance, but donations are “enthusiastically encouraged.”
The title, a quote from a soliloquy by Hamlet, references the “very witching time of night” when the dead arise: “When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out / Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the bitter day / Would quake to look on.”
Simpson said she chose Artown for her play’s reveal because she “was part of the genesis of Artown — in on the planning and among the first artists involved — so I do have a warm place in my heart for the festival.”
The work finds the characters from Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Hamlet” stuck in purgatory, a way station between heaven and hell where souls reside until their final destination is decided.
Purgatory’s gatekeeper (who turns out to be a character from another tragedy by Shakespeare) defines the rules: “Either you all make it to heaven or you are all damned.”
Stairways to Heaven
Using the seven deadly sins as a guide, they all must confront their behaviors and motivations while they were alive so they might together ascend various levels leading to heaven. That’s not an easy task for these characters — a group who stabbed, poisoned, betrayed, and ultimately murdered each other back when they had heartbeats.
In her written stage direction, Simpson recommends the play’s director reference Tadeusz Kantor’s staging. Kantor was a renowned Polish experimental theatre creator. Simpson’s stage is strewn with, “found objects” often used in experimental theatre. She suggests that the characters might use these objects to build platforms to get to heaven.
I read “When Churchyards Yawn”, in script form (as it is only playing one time in Reno), but it is meant to be performed. It will be intriguing to see the words on the page come alive in the Biggest Little City.
Leave your CliffsNotes at home; audience members don’t have to be experts on “Hamlet” to follow the plot. Simpson’s language, unlike Shakespeare’s, is easy to understand. It’s funny and I laughed aloud several times while reading the script.
A Northern Nevada cast
Simpson snagged her Actor’s Equity card at age 15 and her respect for theatre is evident in the play. Often we find ourselves revisiting classics for lack of new and interesting works. Simpson is not revisiting “Hamlet,” but as in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard, she uses Shakespeare’s tragedy as a jumping-off point.
The play is directed by Kate Roswen, a Northern Nevada actor and director. The cast is composed of all Northern Nevada-based actors. Simpson herself is cast as Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.
The audience may participate in a question and answer period with the author, director and actors while enjoying a free brunch (including mimosas).
On July 17 at 10 a.m. we will find out, as Hamlet said: “I’ll have grounds more relative than this — the play’s the thing”
Theater reviewer Carol Schaye studied acting with Lee Strasberg and playwriting and critique with Salem Ludwig.