Shakespearean Tropes In Meow Wolf’s “Omega Mart” (Spoiler alert)

Giant Skull art as part of Area 15. Hamlet would be dazzled.

I just got back from Las Vegas where I had a simulating, terrifying, and extremely engaging trip to the Meow Wolf Area 15! If you haven’t heard of them, Meow Wolf is an arts and entertainment group which specializes in creating multimedia experiences, and their most popular and mysterious installation is their apocalyptic grocery store, Omega Mart.

Even if you’ve never been to Omega Mart, you might have seen their website, their ’employee training videos’, or the music videos that have been floating around the Internet. My journey began when I saw this video by the YouTube channel Food Theory. After seeing this video, I, like Matt Pat was compelled to go there myself and discover what Omega Mart was like.

My handwritten notes about the mysteries of Omega Mart that I wanted to explore once I got there.

“We take a lot from open world games [where] you can play the story lines or you can just mess around.  We like giving people that optionality (sic). If you’re a 5 year old kid and you aren’t into reading a bunch of material, you just want to run around and treat it like a playground, and that’s totally fine.”

Vince Cadleback, CEO of Meow Wolf
Video artwork that was projected on the wall of the Forked Earth room

A Note about the experience

Meow Wolf’s CEO has stated that the experience of Omega Mart is ultimately up to you. Similar to Sleep No More, this art installation (and it is an art installation) is much like an experiential theater experience in that there is no proscenium, and you do not sit down; it is not a passive watching experience but an active mystery. In Sleep No More, you followed various actors and watched them act out scenes in front of you. In Omega Mart, the story is more epistulary, meaning that there are no live performances, but you can unlock the story at your own pace through reading journal entries, corporate memos and websites, mini-games, and of course, actors performing in corporate videos, commercials, and even security footage. Like a modern video game, you can just walk around the open world and enjoy it, or you can unlock all the lore and piece together the mystery of Omega Mart yourself. This is story a story that is rife with greed, personal tragedy, family drama and maybe even murder. So of course my Shakespeare brain activated, and I wanted to see if I could find some Shakespearian tropes in the story of Omega Mart. I should mention that this kind of experience is often best when you let it become a surprise, so if you truly want to experience Omega Mart without spoilers, stop reading….

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 OK well if you’ve continued reading grab your tattoo chicken, apply your whale song deodorant and let’s get going!

The Characters

The drama of Omega Mart focuses on a single family, the Dram family: Walter, Charlie, Cecilia and Marin Dram. As you go through the various exibits in the Meow Wolf installation (not just the OmegaMart store), you begin to piece together what happened to them, how this family broke apart, and what Shakespearian tropes can we see within this story.

  1. Charlie Dram: Sir John Falstaff The whole story begins with Charlie Dram; an old garage attendant who lives in the fictional town of Seven Monolith Villiage in Nevada. As you can see in the brochure I photographed above, Charlie runs a small tourist attraction where he guides tours allowing people to see The Forked Earth- a dimensional rift between our world and an alien planet, that is also the fount of a powerful and dangerous place called The Source Well. At some point, Charlie goes into business with his family, who eventually cut him out of their lives.

Henry VI know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.

  • King Henry IV, Part II, Act V, Scene 5.
Walter Dram, CEO of Dramcorp
2. Walter Dram: King Lear. This being America of course it was inevitable that somebody would try to capitalize on the Source Well, specifically Walter dram Charlie's brother Walter. Mr. Dram, the CEO of Dramcorp found a way to harness the source and use it it's not explicitly stated but it's highly implied that he took the source to a place called plenty Valley and started using it to revitalize crops out in the Las Vegas desert.
After harnessing The Source, Walter found that he was able to create produce that had unusual properties updates and creep and from there he opened his grocery store omega mart If you go to a megamart the product seem just a little off they all seem to have peculiar names seem to have peculiar properties and in some extreme cases they seem to have inhuman properties like like lemons that are alive! Charlie calls these creatures "mascots;" creatures that have that seem to be living cereal boxes. The source seems to have unpredictable and uncontrollable effects on effects on on natural products but because every Omegamart produce is doused with Additive S (which is Walter's addictive additive made from The Source), customers don't seem to care if they become addicted to any products that are laced with The Source.
Walter finds himself extremely a rich and successful and opens up his corporation Dram Corp in 1977. Decades later in 2020, Walter and promises to make his daughter Cecilia Dram his sucessor when he retires yet he retires, but at some point he must have reneged on that promise and then mysteriously promising Kaz Matzumora the position of CEO. What happened toacilitate the fallout between Walter and Cecilia, we're not sure But it's quite possible that it has something to do with Cecilia's daughter Marin.

Better that thou hast not been born, then not to have pleased me better.

King Lear

So we have a rich and successful man, who, now that he’s getting old, desires to pass his empire on to younger people, including his daughter. At the same time, he refuses to let go of power, and is willing to throw family under the bus to get his way, as he did with Charlie, and would have done with Marin, (more on that later). Let’s just say, it is very easy to spot the parallels between Walter Dram, and King Lear. Look at this video below where Walter seems to repent for his greed and abandoning his family, though it takes place in an ethereal prison.

  • LearPray, do not mock me.
    I am a very foolish fond old man,
    Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
    And, to deal plainly,
    I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
    Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
    Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
    What place this is; and all the skill I have
    Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
    Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
    For (as I am a man) I think this lady
    To be my child Cordelia.
King Lear Act IV, Scene vii.

When I watched the Film Theory about Omega Mart, I thought Walter was like King Duncan in Macbeth, and his daughter Cecelia was Lady Macbeth, killing Walter to gain his power. The truth though, is much more complicated, and it centers around Walter’s granddaughter, Marin.

2. Marin Dram: Cordelia from King Lear, Miranda from The Tempest

if you look at the videos in Charlie’s office you can see Cecilia Dram (Walter’s daughter), drinking the Source. Within a minute she starts having cramps, and convulsions; she has been literally impregnated by the Source! Her daughter Marin was conceived by Cecilia Dram and the Source. But, there’s a catch; Marin, because she was created from the Source, cannot be too far from the Source Well. So, rather than living with her her mother and grandfather at Dramcorp, she’s forced to live in a yurt in Seven Monolith Village, very close to the Source Well.

Tarot cards found in Marin’s desk.

Marin’s diary expresses a deep sense of loneliness and a desire to explore the world, not unlike Prospero’s daughter Miranda in The Tempest. She also expresses romantic feelings for Rose, a girl who lives in Seven Monolith, (who according to Charlie, is the granddaughter of a woman who successfully translated the language of the aliens who created the Source Well). The wonderful music video “Marin’s dream” playing below, shows cogent references to Marin having bisexual feelings for Rose and fear towards her mother. This is partly because, since Marin is connected to the Source and her family has been exploiting The Source for profit, she is fearful that her mother will exploit her for her Source-given powers .

We are such suff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep

Prospero- The Tempest

It is further revealed that Marin is capable of creating living creatures with her own mind because of her connection to the Source. Below is a drawing by Marin of a hampster These powers make her highly desirable to both of Cecilia and Walter. As Charlie mentions in the brochure, there are living product creatures called mascots and it seems likely that Marin is literally creating these creatures in her sleep!

At the end of the music video you can see Marin going through a portal in the wall. In Seven Monolith you can access numerous posters, emails, and phone calls that discuss and speculate about Marin’s disappearance. Some say she ran away from home, some say she was violently sucked into the portal, but the music video makes it very clear that Marin Dram chose to leave Seven Monolith Villiage, and to leave our universe as we know it. Why? It probably has to do with her mother, Cecilia Dram.

Cecilia’s letter to Charlie, May 2017

Cecelia Dram: Goneril and prosperO

Like I said before, I was expecting Cecelia to be the villain in the story- a power-hungry “thankless child,” (as King Lear puts it), who murdered her own father to take control of his empire. Now it’s possible that she did want to take the company at some point, but what also seems clear is that Cecelia is also seeking redemption for herself, and a reunion for her family.

Cecelia and Walter’s Disappearance

In a highly classified video that you can only access in the Dram Corp offices, Walter and Cecilia confront each other about Marin, and Walter seems to be intent on exploiting her gifts for profit. At this point, the video cuts out, but the audio tells us that Walter has fallen into the Source Well. It’s unclear whether he fell or if Cecilia or Marin pushed him, but what we do know is that Walter in every subsequent and email and communication with the board is referred to as “traveling.” When I first saw this, I thought that it meant that Cecilia had murdered Walter simply to gain control of the company, but it seems to be wilder than that; it seems that Cecilia might have thrown Walter into the source well to protect her daughter, but now wishes to get him back.

Once Walter falls into the Source Well, he actually absorbed so much Source that he no longer has a physical form; he seems to have ascended to a higher plane of existence and as you can see in this whiteboard, there’s a rumor that he is actually hiding somewhere in the Omega Mart facility. I won’t give away where he actually is though; you’ll have to discover it yourself.

Cecilia’s motives are the most interesting and ambiguous in the course of the Omegamart storyline. Her demeanor changes drastically after the disappearance of her father and daughter; it seems that she is trying to harness the power of the source not for profit but for but to cause her employees to “Ascend to a higher plan of existence.” Other members of the board in teleconferences seem frustrated with her, accusing her of no longer taking an interest in selling products anymore and that she seems to be coming down with strange cult-like behavior. Look at this highly confusing LED talk she gave one month after Walter’s disappearance:

So it’s ambiguous what Cecilia’s motives are- it could be that she’s attempting to create an army of Source-addicted zombies to do her bidding. It’s also possible that she is trying to figure out how to replicate the same experience as Walter and Marin. Maybe she wants to try and replicate what happened to them, so she can see them again.

Further evidence also supports that Cecelia is desperate to contact Marin and Walter by the fact that in addition to working on LAT, (her employee advancement program), Cecilia is also pushing her research team to create inter-dimensional portals. The clip above in which Cecilia talks to her DART scientists strongly implies what Cecilia really wants to do is to find her daughter in whatever dimension that she’s actually in. Notice that when the test subject mentions a teenage girl he sees in his dreams, Cecelia immediately drops everything to talk to him. Soon after that, DART starts working on DRAMNILATE, a technology that allows researchers to look inside people’s dreams, and test them on the exact same employee as before. Clearly Cecelia is hellbent on finding Marin anywhere, even in dreams!

Through the entire Omegamart storyline, it is ambiguous as to whether Cecilia is the hero or the villain. Her quest to find her family is noble, but she is hiding behind a mask of unbridled capitalism and exploiting a company that creates an addictive substance to do it. It seems almost Faustian that Cecelia has made a deal with the Devil to try and get her family back.

 Tell your piteous heart there’s no harm done. No harm.

I have done nothing but in care of thee,

Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who

Art ignorant of what thou art…

The Tempest , Act I, Scene ii.

So what does this have to do with Shakespeare? When I saw how Cecelia was protecting Marin I saw a king Lear trope; a greedy cruel old man who places his kingdom ahead of even his own family. Lear’s daughter Goneril lies to him and rejects him, but she does so to protect herself. Cecelia is alike a Goneril who protects Cordelia, the youngest and most innocent of Lear’s daughters, while Marin is like Cordelia herself.

Zenion creature (left), and illustration of Caliban (right).

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me! When thou camest first,
I loved thee And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king!

Caliban, Act I Scene ii.

Looking at the totality of the Omegamart story, there are several connections to the Tempest Calliban the creature that lives on Prospero’s island bears striking similarities to the Zenions. He is described as being man and fish, much like the Zenions. Further, Caliban is not a native inhabitant of the island; he was brought over by the witch Sycorax and Prospero exploited him after Sycorax died, much like how the Dram family, especially Walter, exploited The Zenion’s magical Source.

In both cases, the Prospero character has both noble and ingnoble goals- Prospero wants to get himself and his daughter home, but also to revenge his exile to the island. Walter and Cecilia seem like Prospero split in two: there is a light side that wishes to defend Marin and see her safely home,and the dark side that wishes to exploit The Source and addict unwitting consumers.

I won’t give away how the story of omegamart ends but let’s just say that Walter gets across the notion that he has repented for his greed, and wishes to free the Source from the factory, much like how Prospero frees Ariel at the end of The Tempest. In both cases, YOU are the necessary person to help free Walter. Both Walter and the Meow Wolf team have hinted that there are new areas of Omega Mart that guests haven’t unlocked yet. Perhaps you will be the one to unlock the secret to free Walter, and the Source!

  • ProsperoNow my charms are all o’erthrown,
    And what strength I have’s mine own,
    Which is most faint: Let me not,
    Since I have my dukedom got
    And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
    In this bare island by your spell;
    But release me from my bands
    With the help of your good hands:
    And my ending is despair,
    Unless I be relieved by prayer,
    Which pierces so that it assaults
    Mercy itself and frees all faults.
    As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
    Let your indulgence set me free.
Prospero. Act V, Scene i

Thanks for reading this post. If you enjoyed reading it, leave a comment below. Please also relate any Omega Mart stories you had at Area 15!

Go See Steel City Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor”

Today is your last chance to see “Merry Wives Of Windsor” at Steel City Shakespeare in Pittsburgh, PA. My friend Jeff Chips is the artistic director, and in this new episode of my podcast, you can listen to him talk about the show, and we reminisce about the production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” we did together in 2008.

https://anchor.fm/the-shakespearean-student/embed/episodes/Interview-with-Jeff-Chips–director-of-Steel-City-Shakespeare-e1lse5f

If you want tickets, click below!

If you live in the Pittsburgh area, please go see Steel City Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor."

https://www.onthestage.tickets/show/steel-city-shakespeare-center/the-merry-wives-of-windsor-79517

Review: Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V

Since July is my month to celebrate Shakespeare’s Henry V, I’d like to talk about one of the most celebrated versions of the play, Kenneth Branaugh’s Academy Award Winning film from 1989.

The Concept

Clip from Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944)

Like many directors trying to re-adapt an old story, Branaugh began by looking at Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie version of Henry V, deliberately inverting a lot of Olivier’s choices.

Olivier’s version has a framing device where the audience watches the play in a movie-set recreation of the Globe Theater, (since Henry V was probably the first play ever performed when the Globe originally opened in 1599). For the first 30 minutes, you are not watching a movie but a filmed play, albeit one where your fellow audience members are dressed in costumes from 1599.

Stage Olivier
Olivier as King Henry stands on a reconstruction of The Globe Theater in his 1944 film.

While watching the play within a movie, and seeing ‘audience members’ clap and cheer for Henry, and boo and hiss the French, you get a keen sense of the theatrical illusion of the play, and its importance to English patriotism in 1599. This makes sense since the film itself was commissioned by Winston Churchill to help raise morale during the D-day invasion in 1944.

While Olivier’s film is theatrical and patriotic, Branaugh’s is cinematic and introspective. His film opens on an empty movie set with the Chorus (Derek Jacobi), giving us a tour of the set. He laments that, even with all the cinematic wizardry of modern movies, this movie cannot capture the true glory of Henry V.

Derek Jacobi as the Chrous in Henry V

Branaugh’s performance as the titular king is also quite different from Olivier’s. While Olvier is jovial and charismatic, Branaugh’s King Henry switches between cold and calculating, to intensely passionate. This isn’t to say that his acting is bad; but that Branaugh’s King Henry is a self-conscious actor. The king changes his performance to suit the scenario he’s in: diplomatic and calculating in the throne room, demented and violent on the battlefield, calm and confident with his troops, and pious and merciful in victory.

When I studied the play in college, my teacher posited whether Henry V is a Machiavellian king, and I think Branaugh’s certainly is, in that he knows kingship is a job; one that requires the king to constantly playing roles to get what he wants from people- love, awe, respect, or fear. He’s so good at acting, he even teaches his soldiers how to act like fearesome warriors in his famous “Once More Unto The Breach” speech.

Branaugh in King Henry V

What really sets Branaugh’s movie apart from Olivier’s is the way he handles battles. Again, Olivier in 1944 wanted to raise morale during WW2, when British soldiers were actually invading France to supplant a tyrant. Branaugh in 1989, had seen the world’s response to the Vietnam War, and the decades-long violence in his home country of Ireland. Therefore his version literally takes a dim view of war in general.

Branaugh’s world is not colorful or cheerful- the council scenes are full of candlelit shadows. Branaugh’s fireside chat with his soldiers is a smoky, shadowy look into the terror of men who know they must fight and die tomorrow. Look at the excellent performance of Michael Williams (Judy Dench’s late husband), who takes the king to task while looking at the campfire, almost as if he can see the fires of hell, coming for the English:

King Henry (Branaugh), talks in disguise to the soldier Williams (Michael Williams)
Comparison between Olivier’s 1944 version, and Branaugh’s 1989 movie portrayals of the Battle of Agincourt.

The most striking difference between the two films is how both directors stage The Battle of Agincourt. Olivier’s is a sun-kissed charge on white horses. Branaugh’s is a grimy, mud-stained mess, overcast with a fog of moral ambiguity. Even though the English win, they are meant to question whether or not they have been fighting for a worthy cause. Even after the King proclaims victory for God and country, and the music swells with the gorgeous notes of Non Nobis Dominine (composed and sung by Patrick Doyle), Branaugh has a long tracking shot of all the bodies slain on both sides in the battle. This is the film in a nutshell- a wonderfully acted, exciting, cleverly done thrill ride, that still pulls back and shows the inherently grim and destructive nature of war, that defiles all it touches.

Non Nobis scene from Henry V

The Plot Of the Play

  • King Henry takes the throne in 1413 after his father dies. No one thinks he will run the country effectively.
  • The Dauphin (the French Prince) provokes Henry into declaring war with France, (thus allowing him to claim the right of his predecessor, King Edward III).
  • Henry fends off the French at Harfleur, despite the fact that they are shooting at him with cannons.
  • Henry’s army starts getting sick. Henry decides to start heading back to Calais 
  • The French raise a massive army and it marches towards Agincourt. Mountjoy the French herald warns Henry he will be annihilated and urges him to pay the French a ransom if he is captured. Henry refuses and marches his troops to battle the French at Agincourt.
  • Against all odds, Henry’s army defeats the French at Agincourt, with only about 30 English deaths, and over 10,000 French.

Henry and the French King make peace, and the play ends on a joyous celebration of peace and matrimony, though the Chorus also reminds us that once King Henry dies, his son will lose France and England will be torn apart by civil war.    

Historical Context

My Favorite Moments

I love Branaugh’s performance and his take on the Battle of Agincourt, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other performances and moments of the play.

  1. Armed Ultimatum: In this wonderful scene, we first see the overconfidence of the French, especially the hot-tempered Dauphin (Michael Maloney), who admits that he deliberately goaded Henry into declaring war because he wishes to personally fight with King Henry. His father the King, (played by Paul Scoffield) is a timid, melancholic individual, (historians often called him Charles the Mad), and he seems like an easily manipulated monarch, ripe for conquest by King Henry. We then see the imposing figure of the Duke of Exeter (Brian Blessed), who comes in full plate armor to warn the French that though the French outnumber the English, the English are a hardy and powerful people, and that King Henry will not stop until all of France is his.

Supporting Cast

Branaugh mainly casts his movies out of his Renaissance Acting theater troupe, which is why in almost all his movies you see familiar faces like Brian Blessed, Derek Jakobi, Richard Clifford, Richard Easton Michael Maloney, Paul Gregory and Geraldine McEwan. As someone who’s seen all of Branaugh’s Shakespeare movies, I get the curious sensation that I know these people, trust them, and find myself rooting for them since I saw them in other roles. Maybe Branaugh hoped his longtime viewers would be concerned for the lives of his “Band of Brothers.”

Welcome additions include Micheil Williams as Williams, as well as his wife Judy Dench as Mistress Quickly. These actors are just as home playing grubby common English peasants as they are playing kings and queens.

Emma Thompson and Geraldine McEwan sparkle onscreen as the French Princess Katherine and her maid Alice. The first time I saw the film, their French was so good, I didn’t believe it was really them! Likewise, the awkward wooing scene between Thompson and Branaugh (who were married at the time) is so charming, you forget all the violence and atrocities that happened on both sides earlier, and giddily enjoy their romantic banter.

My Reaction

In short, Branaugh created, at least for now, the definitive Henry V for our times. It is a world where war is not glamorous and rarely just. Where common men die and rich men survive, though they must carry their sins on their back,( just as Branaugh carries the young boy played by Christian Bale). Yet it is also a story about the power of great leaders overcoming adversity, caring for their subjects, and doing the best they can to bring peace and stability to their people.

Bonus: Here’s an interview with Branaugh about the process of creating the film:

Branaugh in an interview with Bobbie Wygant in 1989.

Remembering David Warner

https://www.rsc.org.uk/news/david-warner

I’m saddened to report the death of a great British thespian and a versitile character actor. David Warner rose to priminance at the Royal Shakespeare Company, whre he played a celebrated Hamlet, a saintly King H enry VI, and many many others.

Warner as King Henry VI, RSC 1965

https://www.thehamletpodcast.com/hall

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/stage/2022/jul/25/david-warner-was-gentle-inquisitive-and-stunning-on-stage

Warner’s stage career falls into two distinct halves: a youthful decade of riotous acclaim and a late-life flowering separated by a period from 1972 to 2001 when he forsook the stage to carve out a career in cinema. Yet in both youth and age he showed similar gifts: an innate gentleness of spirit, a sense of latent melancholy, an inquisitive intellect