The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet is a bold and daring adventure that stretches the traditional boundaries of one of the classiest of the classics. In place of a dialogue coach, they retained the services of Gayle Danley whose passion lives with poetry slamming. In her words, slam poetry’s “…use of competition, audience participation and fierce, true words has electrified the poetry scene…”
Unfortunately, the electricity it brings to Chesapeake’s Romeo and Juliet signals a death knell for some of Shakespeare’s finest poetry. While it highlights a youthful exuberance and passion that is clearly central to this play, it also strips it bare of the music in Shakespeare’s words. Nuance, inflection and vocal variety are supplanted almost universally by this fierceness and an in-your-face immediacy that I can only guess was intended to bring Romeo and Juliet leaping forward into the 21st century.
There is much more here that is innovative and audacious. Julian Elijah Martinez’ starts his Romeo off with strong overtones of a breathless, giddy adolescent. The iconic balcony scene elicits more laughter than ardor, a questionable choice at the very least. The scene is made even more curious by staging the two actors rooted in positions yards apart leaving one to wonder if they really wanted to get their hands on one another all that badly.
Martinez has a strong stage presence but apparently either lacks any meaningful vocal training or decided to ignore it and go all out for poetry slamming. When things turn dark and Romeo transforms from loquacious lover to street brawling murderer, Martinez still retains a strange breathiness and a high-pitched, fast-paced monotony to his speeches. They do not come “trippingly off the tongue” as Hamlet would have them.
Rachel Jacobs brings just the right freshness to her portrayal of Juliet and occupies the essence of the character enough to hold our attention and even move our hearts at times. Martinez becomes a believable Romeo when he is with her. Hers is the most successful of all the attempts at translating Shakespeare’s poetry into slam and remains a compelling tragic figure even as she spits her lines out all too quickly at times.
Mercutio, the brooding, bawdy, half-mad bully and closest kinsmen to Romeo, is turned inside out and played by a woman as a woman. Blythe Coons does all she can to make him/her real, but having a woman humping, bumping and trafficking in overt acts of sexual byplay with men in the context of Elizabethan times just does not work. This strange sexual neutrality is also problematic in the crucial relationship with Romeo. Mercutio is written to be like a big brother to Romeo and it is that bond, severely missing here, that sets Romeo off on a bloody rampage after Tybalt slays Mercutio.
In one of the experiments that works rather well, Jose Guzman plays Friar Lawrence as something of a Father Guido Sarducci knock-off. He is killer funny in his opening scenes but shifts gears nicely as his manipulative attempts to preserve Romeo and Juliet’s relationship unravel. There is a great risk for him in setting high comic expectations and having to turn radically against them when the script calls for it. In many ways, the Friar is the pivot point of the tragedy. Guzman walks the fine line from stand-up comedy in the first act turned to desperate acts of dangerous invention in the second act believably and commandingly.
Another nice surprise here is the inclusion of four of the minor characters as “poets.” The Prince’s opening introductory speech is split up among them and various phrases are echoed in and around the speech by other cast members. The effect was repeated briefly with the ending soliloquy. The haunting, reverberating voices first foretold of the tragedy to come and then topped it off nicely at the end. As much as I liked the invention, it did not work well at all when they split Mercutio’s famous Queen Mab speech among the poets. That speech is precisely the opportunity that Mercutio has to demonstrate his closeness to Romeo and, as previously noted, that relationship was MIA.
Kate Michelsen Graham does a nice job as the Nurse and her byplay with Patrick Kilpatrick as Peter is appropriately funny – very funny, in fact, due mostly to Kilpatrick’s grab bag of comic faces and his unerring sense of timing. The remainder of the CSC company melded together in the kind of close knit ensemble for which they are deservedly known and praised.
In addition to their tight ensemble approach, another of the enduring strengths of CSC is their imaginative use of the historic ruins at the Patapsco Women’s Institute in Ellicott City. For this production they have built in a sizeable array of platforms and beams that transform the space while maintaining the magic of the ruins in the background. And nature contributes to the stage design as well. There is nothing quite like lightening bugs to enhance the ambiance of a soft summer night at a beautiful outdoor theatre venue.
I am wildly in favor of boldness and daring in the theatre, particularly in re-imagining works that may have become more time worn than timeless. However, when one is so busy being distracted by startling innovations, the play itself gets lost. I’m quite certain that is not what the director, Jenny Leopold or the stellar company of CSC actors had in mind. This Romeo and Juliet is not a total failure by any means. At the same time, there is a fundamental integrity in the characters and the poetry as written by the finest playwright of all time that can only be stretched so far. So rate this one an A for audaciousness and good intentions and a C- for authenticity and believability.
Romeo and Juliet runs thru July 29, 2012 at PFI Historic Park, 3655 Church Road, Ellicott City, MD.
Details and tickets
Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jenny Leopold
Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Larry Bangs
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including one 15 minute intermission