“In Christian tradition, purgatory is a place where dead souls go to atone for their sins. It is neither heaven nor hell. It’s a seemingly endless state of waiting, where time is irrelevant and your ultimate fate is obscured. After a year of quarantine lockdown, playwright Jeanmarie Simpson felt like she could relate, and it got her thinking about who else might be in limbo with her.
“I watched—just because I love the film—Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet,” Simpson said. “And as we were watching it, I was just locked down and stuck, and I remembered, ‘Oh, Hamlet in purgatory, what a great idea.’ And I just started writing it like crazy, and it kind of wrote itself.”
Her resulting new play, When Churchyards Yawn, will be revealed Friday, July 16 at a dramatic reading as part of Artown. In it, Simpson imagines the famous cast of Hamlet having spent the past 400 years traversing the seven levels of Dante’s hell, while confronting the cardinal sins of each level—and their own past deeds.
“They have to rehash all this stuff, so that gave me a construct where the characters could really have the arguments that we as actors have when we do the play,” Simpson said. “It’s like the things Gertrude puts up with from him—the way Hamlet treats her. When I first went into it, I thought, ‘Well, it’s Hamlet’s play. He’s the good guy.’ Boy, I have a really different attitude about it. … He isn’t necessarily the hero.”
Simpson has portrayed Hamlet’s Mother Gertrude onstage before, and will be reprising her role for the Artown reading. As one of the co-founders of the Nevada Shakespeare Company, she is intimately familiar with the Bard’s works and believes that even Shakespeare should be subject to contemporary reckoning, with his use of harmful cultural stereotypes (his portrayal of the Jewish merchant Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, for example) and his depictions of women.
“With this play, we get to really take on the way Ophelia is treated,” Simpson said. “We get to really ask the questions flat out, full on, full bore, top of our lungs, ask the questions that actors have been asking since the play first came out. [It’s like] you’re watching a movie and you can watch it for the 17th time, and you’re still going, ‘Why are you going in there? Why didn’t you do this other thing? Why did you make that choice?’”
Still, Simpson calls When Churchyards Yawn more of a reflective play, not an overtly political one—even if some of her previous works have been. A lifetime member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom among other activitist ventures, Simpson is pursuing social justice through her company Arizona Theatre Matters in Phoenix, where she lives in the winter months.
“For me, with my company and producing this play, a big part of the challenge is figuring out how to make it accessible to deaf and hard of hearing patrons who speak sign language, and blind patrons who have to have a describer there,” Simpson said.
ATM pioneered a fully accessible production on its YouTube channel—a one-woman production of Simpson’s Heretic: The Mary Dyer Story—which features on-screen signing and off-screen stage descriptions, translated into 110 languages. Simpson is working on adding more accessibility features to live productions at ATM, but finds resistance from hearing and sighted audiences that find the features “distracting.” Conversely though, she has also struggled to find any signers who are willing to translate Shakespeare specifically.
When Churchyards Yawn will feature stage direction read aloud for blind patrons, but will not feature a signer. After the July 16 reading, Simpson plans to adapt the play to the stage, once all pandemic measures are fully lifted—a hopeful and cautious measure that echoes the play’s overall message:
“We can either all go to hell together or we can make it to heaven together, but we can’t do this separately,” Simpson said. “We are a species, and we are all in this together.”
When Churchyards Yawn, a new divine comedy by Jeanmarie Simpson, will be revealed in a dramatic reading this Saturday, July 17 at 10am at Ali’s Alley inside the Potentialist Workshop, 836 E. 2nd St., Reno.
The actors are Tom Strekal, Cori Cooper, John Frederick, Annikki Larson, Gary Eugene Cremeans II, Michael Peters, Kirk Gardner, Phil Harriman, Jeffrey Bentley and Jeanmarie Simpson revisiting the role of Gertrude,
which she twice played for Nevada Shakespeare Company.
Admission: Pay what you can, plus a non-perishable food item for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada.
Brunch will be provided. Donations are enthusiastically encouraged.