Courtesy of Declan Kunkel
Imagine Hamlet meets Hamilton. It’s your classic story of absolute power corrupting absolutely, injected with ballads, raps and red velvet period costumes.
And did I mention that the entire script and score were written by a junior here at Yale? Hershel Holiday ’18 created a musical with a nuanced story, three-dimensional characters and a range of catchy songs spanning musical genres that contribute to the plot in rap-opera style. Needless to say, as a playwright who can barely find time to write one-acts, I was incredibly impressed.
The story follows the new King of Drakora, Augustus (Jae Shin), who has come to power after his murderous father’s death. Augustus struggles with his father’s legacy, his own insecurity and rebellion plotted by his cousin, whose father was killed by the former king in a search for power. When his attempts to rekindle an old relationship with the queen of Anarra fail, Augustus begins to go mad.
It’s at this point, about halfway through the first act, that the actors really heated up. Shin reveled in his character’s craziness, physically shaking with intensity and belting out his soulful second act songs with the pain of an unloved son and rejected lover, while maintaining his Hamlet-esque thirst for blood. He takes tyrant and stalker-ex-boyfriend to new extremes, but allows moments of deep hurt and insecurity to flash in his expression. The character is nearly sympathetic, despite his murderous rampages, due to Shin’s layered portrayal and enrapturing intensity.
One of my favorite moments was the final scene between Augustus and his ex-lover, Queen Iliana (Rayo Oyeyemi). Iliana rejects Augustus once and for all, and points out the inherent sexism in the system of kingship and even in the expectations of queens, and does this all in a powerful rap interlaced with belty choruses. Her voice steals the show, as she tackles a variety of vocal ranges and musical genres while maintaining a simultaneously strong and vulnerable character.
I admired Holiday’s three-dimensional characters, specifically the women of court, whom he doesn’t lump into the stereotypical roles of queen, queen-mother and king’s wife. Augustus’ mother (Anelisa Fergus) strikes up a protective sisterhood of sorts with Iliana, forfeiting her expected responsibilities to both her son and her late husband; Iliana’s lady-in-waiting (Sofia Campoamor) refuses to allow her lover to excuse his selfish actions by blaming them on his love for her; and Iliana asserts her desire to rule her own kingdom, and not cede her power to Augustus, as is unjustly expected in marriage.
Holiday creates nuanced and emotionally believable characters within a musical (a format which sometimes relies on showstopper numbers to justify stock archetypes), while also creating a score that fits fluidly into the script and does dramatic work.
I’m not going to pretend that every second was perfect. The scene changes could have used background music, and both the rap and the dialogue that took place over ambient tracks would have benefited from giving the actors microphones. But these technical issues are to be expected, especially at the world premiere of a new musical which has never before hit the stage.
I went into the filled Off-Broadway Theater unsure of what to expect: I’d never seen a student-written musical before. The best moments were the songs in which a majority of the cast were onstage, harmonizing in artistically choreographed positions and creating a soundtrack that I’d be happy to hear again. Drakorian, though a fantastical period piece with a plot and deathtoll akin to classic Hamlet, is thoroughly modern in its full characterizations and musical diversity, and definitely a good thing to experience this weekend!