As a former theater kid, The Ghost of Joe Papp was a trip down memory lane.
Let me start by saying that theater kids are weird. Sometimes it’s the good kind of weird that leads to impromptu karaoke battles against your director at the cast party following your final show. Other times it’s the bad kind of weird that results in messy love triangles and minor injuries because your primadonna lead actor got so into his character that he actually hurled another actress across the stage (long story). It’s this passion for expression that borders on insanity at times, held in check only by snack breaks and occasional cuts to rework a scene’s blocking. And this is just when dealing with your average thespians; Shakespearean actors are a completely different tier of dramatically neurotic. It’s this branch of unstable madness that make up the central players in The Ghost of Joe Papp.
The Ghost of Joe Papp follows a small group of actors over the course of a summer at the John Q Public theater in Joe Papp, Nevada, and culminates in performances of both Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice. At the start of the VN you can pick whether you follow the story as Scott or Molly, and after going down both routes you can merely watch the story unfold as a member of the audience. Honestly, it’s worth it.
The cast consists of all your basic Shakespeare staples: Molly and Scott, the star-crossed lovers, Max the scapegoat, Starter the mad seer(?), Kitri the naive girl with suicidal tendencies, and Shawn the wealthy and (semi)honorable older character. Joining them is Azzie from Hollywood, here to draw attention to a flagging interest in Shakespearean theater, along with the titular ghost of the theater, William Shakespeare himself, appearing in feminine form to give advice to the actors as the show goes on. I can honestly say that the whole “this town is literally haunted by the semi-omnipotent ghost of England’s greatest playwright” isn’t even the weirdest part of the VN.
Everything about The Ghost of Joe Papp plays out like a Shakespearean drama. All of the angst and backstory between characters is delivered via lines of dialogue, and you only ever follow the characters that are currently “on stage,” so to speak. Characters entering and leaving the room do so via stage directions; oftentimes, it feels more like reading a script than a novel.
The characters themselves are as emotionally extreme as anyone from Shakespeare’s plays; Molly has the temper of a raging bull, Scott is consistent in his cowardice, and you never know what Starter is going to prophesize next. Their extreme personalities often clash with one another, to the point where you as a reader can’t help but marvel at how they ever manage to get through a single scene. One of the best moments in The Ghost of Joe Papp occurs when Azzie is describing which scenes need the most work four weeks before opening night, and Max writes “ENTIRE TEXT OF BOTH PLAYS” before underlining it twice. As a former stagehand who once threatened to staple the actors into place when they couldn’t get their blocking right the rehearsal before opening night, I could relate.
In the background of all this drama lurks the danger of trying to do a Shakespeare play in the modern age. Azzie was brought on because of the career he’d made for himself as a writer of Michael Bay movies, which is a great way to attract attention but perhaps not the best guarantee that you can put on a traditional theatrical show. The actors struggle to put their own spin on characters that have been analyzed and dissected by thousands of more talented and experienced thespians over the course of centuries, and a single debate about whether a line should be followed by a pause or not can cause the whole cast to stop what they’re doing to weigh in. The more talented cast members are being poached by the Globe theater, while the more unstable actors perpetually run the risk of being kicked out of the company.
But that’s theater. You might hate a person’s guts but still be able to put on an amazing show when they’re playing opposite you during the play’s climax. You’ll cuss out a person for botching their cues and then drink with them until dawn after a performance. It’s a complex and murky relationship, and maybe these people won’t ever be best friends or make an effort to hang out during the off-season, but on the stage they make magic happen.
For a VN that only takes about 30 minutes to read through once, The Ghost of Joe Papp does a fantastic job of capturing the essence of messy theater politics interwoven with Shakespearean overtones. Did Kitri actually try to kill herself? How much of Starter’s ramblings are madness, and how much is method? Is there something more to the blatant homoerotic subtext in Max and Shawn’s relationship? Who knows. And in the background to all of that, we have Shakespeare watching his plays being acted out in this miniscule town near Lake Tahoe, freezing time to give life advice to the actors mid-scene and asking for help rolling a blunt.
The Ghost of Joe Papp is available on Steam for $6. If you’re a theater dweeb, a moderate Shakespeare fan, or some combination of both, get it.