Romeo and Juliet
First Folio Shakespeare Festival
By Justin Hayford
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet are full of 400-year-old dick jokes. Since both plays are about mismatched lovers attempting to weather hormonal storms, and since Shakespeare had to play to the stalls as well as the balconies, this should come as no surprise. Given the sheer density of wordplay in both, one might even expect some of the bawdier sentiments to be conveyed through an occasional sly wink or arched eyebrow. But whether gangs of precocious teenage boys pooh-pooh their moony friend's ill-fated love affair in Romeo and Juliet or idle courtiers bumble through farcical love triangles--or more accurately, love dodecahedrons--in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare's oh-so-clever characters rarely shy away from an opportunity to display their verbal wit.
So it might seem unlikely that actors in these plays would turn every incidental innuendo into an opportunity to grab their crotches, thrust their pelvises, or position any handy cylindrical object in front of the nearest man's zipper. But in Alison C. Vesely's Romeo and Juliet and Dale Calandra's cloyingly retitled 12th Nite, the crotch grabbers, pelvis thrusters, and cylinder manipulators are out in full force. Such gestures encapsulate both directors' approaches to "livening up" the dusty old Bard. Like nearly every director in town who's staged Shakespeare in the last decade or so, both seem convinced that audiences can understand Elizabethan drama only if actors illustrate every other phrase with enormous gestures or blaring passions.
True, much of Shakespeare's language is arcane; most of us would stare blankly if someone swore by his holidam or requested a piece of marchpane. But there's a wide gulf between an actor clarifying a textual passage and spelling it out in five-foot-high capital letters. The latter, Headline Shakespeare, permeates both shows with all the punch and none of the finesse that might actually bring these lecture-demonstrations to life. It leaves little room for things like character development, let alone an exploration of relationships between characters.
Take Mercutio's famous "Queen Mab" speech from Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio tries to cheer up Romeo by spinning his leaden-souled pal a fantastic tale of the dream queen who "gallops night by night / Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love; / O'er courtiers' knees, that dream on court'sies straight, / O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees." Vesely directs Sean Fortunato, a fine and intelligent actor, to act out each phrase of his speech--either by impersonating a character he mentions or by goading his compatriots into doing so--for the sole purpose, it seems, of clarifying what brains, knees, curtsies, and fingers are for those unsure in the audience.
Beyond insulting an audience's intelligence, this approach drains all urgency from the scene. Mercutio isn't inventing this speech for his own amusement; he's trying to lift Romeo out of his melancholy. His words are supposed to effect a change in a character, to move the story forward, as all actions in a well-directed play should. Here they're meant simply to illustrate themselves. As a result, despite all the grand gesticulations and general horsing around by Mercutio and his gang, nothing happens during the scene--or in most of the other scenes--except a lot of noise, and the characters remain perfect strangers to one another.
It doesn't help that throughout the evening Vesely tries to transform iambic pentameter into contemporary vernacular speech, which results in a garbled and petty production. Without lyrical elevation, Romeo and Juliet become horned-up teens sneaking around behind their cranky parents' backs. Miraculously, Jessica Shulte as Juliet manages to achieve truly tragic stature by the final moments when she kisses the poison from her dead Romeo's lips. She displays the kind of burning focus and intellectual acumen necessary to turn the densest of textual passages into meaningful action.
Dale Calandra seems hell-bent on packing his 12th Nite with action. With blaring pop music hurrying 20 cast members up and down Geoffrey M. Curley's double-staircase set for over two hours, this is a production that just can't sit still. The tone is set in the opening moments as a slew of Illyrian hipsters boogie sloppily around the stage while Benny Goodman's band boils over the loudspeakers. Then Illyria's duke Orsino delivers the play's famous opening line. "If music be the food of love," he muses, then raises a rowdy fist above his head and bellows, "PLAY ON!" Numerous "woos" rise from the cast. In an instant, Shakespeare becomes indistinguishable from a Mountain Dew commercial.
12th Nite seems more like a two-hour advertisement for the play than the play itself. As the cutesy title would suggest, this is a flashy and superficial evening that runs full tilt until it seems half the cast has suffered permanent vocal cord damage. Every joke is telegraphed by the actors who seem sadly convinced that mugging, pratfalls, and slipshod slapstick are the highest forms of comedy.
This desperate attempt to sell the play at any cost backfires: at no time does the supercharged cast find a moment to invite the audience in. Calandra's sledgehammer direction turns viewers into spoon-fed consumers meant to marvel rather than participate. And given the giddy and tender nature of this play, in which everyone is in love with the wrong person and no one can confess his or her true feelings, an audience is better seduced than assaulted, at least if you'd like them to indulge the more romantic and playful sides of themselves.
At its worst, the production ridicules the very sentiments that the play celebrates. The duke's profound and inexplicable love for the uncaring Olivia, which sets the play in motion and keeps the action heightened, is reduced to a tantrum as he barks out cartoonish sobs and then slaps himself in the face a half dozen times. If the actors don't care about their characters' predicaments, if they can't be bothered to feel empathy for them, why should we?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/D. Rice.