Seattle actor Meme Garcia did a lot of great work in town before leaving on a Fulbright to pursue her masters in classical acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. As I've written before, she's known for turning in bold and brash comedic performances, but now she's back—hopefully for a while—playing one of the most famously depressed and dour characters in dramatic history: Hamlet.
But instead of setting Hamlet during the Jazz Age, or in a giant peach, or on a cartoon Savannah or whatever, Garcia and theater artist Meghan Dolbey have each created a solo show that sets a couple Shakespeare standards within the context of their own lives. Both shows open today at 18th & Union and run through the weekend under the shared title It Will Be Now.
Garcia’s House of Sueños uses characters from Hamlet to grapple with mental illness and intense family drama, whereas Dolbey’s Unsex Me Here weaves MacBeth into a story about getting an abortion. “It’s kind of like in musical theater,” Garcia told me over the phone on a break from rehearsal this week, “When characters don’t have the right words for the experience, they burst into song.” But in this pair of plays, instead of bursting into song, the characters burst into Shakespeare.
For Garcia, Hamlet's family-style existential psychodrama proved fertile ground for digging up and reckoning with her own past pains and present crises. Growing up, Garcia says her sister attempted suicide multiple times. During that period she'd question her sister, wondering why she'd want to leave the planet and a family that "wasn't perfect" but still very loving. Meanwhile, she felt as if she had to be everything for her family that her sister couldn't be, dismissing her own budding troubles with anxiety and depression in the process. In retrospect, she feels as if she turned her back on her sister "in a horrific way," and that the two never really began to heal until Garcia lived through an abusive relationship and began to struggle with mental illness herself.
Playing herself, Hamlet, Ophelia, the sister she feels like she’s wronged, and the abusive ex-boyfriend who wronged her, Garcia sits onstage in a basement and sifts through 60 years of artifacts left behind by her recently departed grandparents. As she picks up different artifacts, she cycles through the characters and plays out little vignettes.
Garcia says playing her ex is particularly difficult. "There's this one part where he lists all of the reasons why I'm horrible without him—he beats me down verbally into nothing, and then I have to validate what he's saying." Those moments when she's yelling at herself ring true, she says. Sometimes she can't believe she allowed herself to stay in the relationship as long as she did, and the connection between her own self-hatred and doubt and her doubts about her sister's mental illness isn't lost on her either.
This crisis of the self, the way in which we habit the roles of the abuser and the abused, is where, for Garcia, Hamlet's thinking is most useful. "When I had to stop judging Hamlet in order to work with his character for
this show, I realized that Hamlet and I aren’t so different, and that Ophelia and I were so different, and me and my sister aren’t so different," she said.
At the same time, she says her abusive relationship is paralleled with the love of dead white men, this impulse she feels "to flock to this thing that doesn’t seem to represent or understand us or have any need for us," she says. "But Hamlet or Shakespeare needs people to perform them, just like my ex-boyfriend needed me in order to accept to accept himself. It's like my sister says: You don’t need Shakespeare, Shakespeare needs you."
While getting her degree in London, Garcia says she assumed nobody would take her seriously because she's Salvadoran, chubby, and young. "Nobody was going to put me in their Shakespeare show," she said. But then she was chosen to play Macduff in a gender-swapped version of MacBeth.
"I got to chop someone's head off with a broadsword while jumping from a massive platform, which was as powerful as I've ever felt," she said. "It was amazing."
"There’s this assumption deep down that Shakespeare has nothing to do with my life," she continued. "But with this show I’m flipping that script. I'm saying we can all shine a light on King Lear or Hamlet or MacBeth in a way that no one else has quite been able to, and that's because it’s based our own experience. Our own lives are true epics, too. We can use them."