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On Stage: Romeo and Juliet in Little Italy

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The inevitability of the deaths of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet tends, in a production of the play, to overshadow the intensity of their love, the tragedy of their suicides. A change in the play's time and setting is one way to shake an audience out of an easy acceptance of the lovers' doom. It can show that though their brief courtship is fraught with the vagaries of chance, Romeo and Juliet aren't just passive victims of circumstances beyond their control. Their fates are the result of their clarity of vision about the rotten world around them and their efforts to rise above it.

The introduction of a particular world other than 15th-century Verona--West Side Story being the obvious example--intensifies the audience's dismay when the two lovers go to their graves so far before their time. The new Goodman Theatre staging of Romeo and Juliet by Michael Maggio aims for just such specificity. Maggio has set the ancient tale of woe in a Verona that could be any generic American "Little Italy." But unlike an update like West Side Story, where the conflict is between two different immigrant groups, the conflict in this Romeo and Juliet is strife within a single community.

Maggio's other switch has been to place the action in 1919, a time when the cohesion of this isolated immigrant enclave would be threatened by change from both within and without--and when defying an arranged marriage would still be dangerous.

In this retelling, the Capulets are nouveau riche businessmen; the Montagues, also Italian immigrants, are less assimilated. Adding to the clash between outmoded tradition and the fear of the American unknown are the usual generational tensions. Juliet, a Capulet, though still protected from New World influences, is drawn to the exciting, young, and modern Romeo. Their meeting comes as both families are retrenching to protect their heritage against a changing world.

Maggio's decision to relocate the lovers in time infuses every aspect of the production. According to costume designer Nan Cibula (whose work has ranged from Goodman's Sunday in the Park With George to Mamet's recent New York production, Speed the Plow), one reason they set the play in 1919 and no later was that "we just couldn't see Juliet with bobbed hair looking like a modern young flapper." It was a real period of change for clothing: "What we consider the modern look was coming in--like shorter skirts and pumps for women instead of boots that had to be laced up.

The more European Montagues wear boots, longer skirts, darker clothes. The more ostentatious Capulets dress in brighter and lighter clothes. Continuing the transformations, Mercutio is a World War I doughboy, presumably still bitter from recent experience in the trenches. Accompanied by his bodyguard, the Prince/Don appears as a dignified politico (not to be confused with Black Hand extortionists or with mafiosi). Tybalt is attired to suggest a former street fighter who now operates from the sidelines. The Capulets' feast has the look of a block party, the market square could pass for the old Maxwell Street, and the stage combat, choreographed by Steve Pickering, uses stilettos, meat hooks, frying pans, ax handles, and an occasional revolver.

Cibula's costumes range from fashion-plate garb at the Capulets' party (a fete full of conspicuous consumption) to the final scene's dour Sicilian mourning.

Larry Schanker, Goodman's composer in residence, has written the music to accompany this version. "My own score has grown with the production," Schanker says. "It's become bigger, more violent, and more passionate than I'd expected." Fourteen musicians (including accordion and mandolin players) will play, among other selections, tarantellas and waltzes at the Capulets' ball. Much of the score is of course inspired by opera and Italian folk music--but no jazz, not for these folks.

The first trick for Schanker was to underline the play's emotions "without losing the setting." His research showed that "making music was an important part of the souls of these people; many nights the whole family would sit around signing songs." So the Italian touch predominates. "I want to enlarge that sound and extend it for full orchestra without, I hope, sounding like Rota's Godfather music--though it's hard to stay away from it, it's so beautiful."

Since Schanker's score is mainly employed in scene transitions, the second trick was "to say a lot very quickly and to make it live up to the level of the language." Toward that end he composed a love theme, a death march, and some "choirly" music to be connected with Friar Lawrence.

Based on Maggio's conception, the most intriguing element for this Romeo and Juliet is the turntable set by Michael Merritt. To ensure a basic authenticity his work imitates the weathered brick-and-clapboard architecture of any Little Italy of the period (the balcony scene takes place on a typical backyard porch of a Chicago apartment building): "The architecture of this time actually had a certain visual relationship to an Italian village," whether deliberate or accidental. The props and furniture pieces will supply necessary period detail.

But the set's main thrust is to emphasize the speed of events and the pervasive element of chance that courses through the tale. The events of Romeo and Juliet amount to a series of good and bad quirks of fate, only the last of which--Juliet's waking too late--guarantees disaster. Bad breaks abound: the wedding between Paris and Juliet being changed from Thursday to Wednesday, the lovers meeting at noon instead of nine, Romeo stepping in front of Mercutio in the fight with Tybalt, Friar Lawrence's warning not reaching Romeo in time . . .

Accordingly, Merritt's intricate set contains lots of Piranesi-like angles, corners, stoops, and alleys. Tall, operator-controlled wooden towers spin to create different configurations--and to convey the sense that things are changing direction and rushing out of control.

With Michael Cerveris and Phoebe Cates as the lovers, Romeo and Juliet runs through November 5 at the Goodman, 200 S. Columbus Drive. Performances are 7:30 PM Tuesday through Thursday, 8 PM Friday through Sunday, with matinees 2 PM Thursday and 2:30 PM Saturday and Sunday. Prices range from $17 to $28. For reservations call 443-3800.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Osgood.

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