Consider four young men – let’s call them Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio and Tybalt, but really, they could be anyone – on the very cusp of their adolescence. Chemicals course through their bloodstreams, calling their brains to love and violence. Their world is run by people their parents’ age, all of whom seem like fools and madmen. They cloak themselves a sort of jokey contempt for the world, and are constantly in high spirits, engaged in horseplay. When they are struck by an idea it possesses them completely and they are like Archimedes in his bath. Their principles are unambiguous and incorruptible, and thus incorrigible. When they stand by those principles they are doing God’s work. When they love, it is like the very invention of love itself. Surely no one ever loved with their passion of feeling, or risked more for their beloved. They are in the sweetest, the liveliest and the most dangerous times of their lives. They are young enough to still tell fart jokes; in a few years they will be sent off to war.
Anyone can understand their condition, but now, more than four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, the emotions attendant on their specific dilemmas often escape us. We know intellectually that the Capulets have arranged a marriage for their thirteen-year-old daughter Juliet, and we know that Juliet and Romeo, because of the ancient enmity between their families, are risking everything by marrying for love. We know that Tybalt and Mercutio battle for the sheer testosterone-drenched joy of fighting, and that Romeo slays Tybalt in a blast of shame after his misbegotten efforts at peacekeeping result in Mercutio’s death. But we don’t know these things emotionally, because most of us don’t come from a culture where girls are married at thirteen upon their parents’ direction, or where family feuds last for generations and are resolved by the sword.
The peculiar genius of Joe Calarco’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, now being given a fine strong production by 1st Stage, is that he reimagines it with people we know, or might know. Four precocious prep-school boys (I’m guessing late-1950s), on the cusp of adolescence, swaddled in school ties and stuffed with Latin, the Pythagorean theory, and ridiculous theories on sex roles, meet late one night in a moonlit forest of bamboo to act out this great Shakespearean play. You can see that the full meaning of Romeo and Juliet has hit them with the force of revelation; they understand it, they believe, and they mean to stage it, with irrational exuberance, before all the crickets and moonlight. They gleefully turn Montague pere into a semi-senile old man, scratching his crotch and wearing his pants up at the nipples; they turn the volume up on the first scene’s vulgar double-entendres, swinging free pieces of bamboo between their legs. They have a great time with a great play.
And the thing is…they do get it. They get it before our eyes. They come to understand, during the “two-hour’s traffic of our stage” how hard and heartbreaking it is to love in the face of society, which demands: not that person, this person over here. When it comes to play the fearsome Lord Capulet, who has decreed Juliet’s marriage to the kinsman of the local Prince, they recognize instinctively that he is not just a man but the whole force of society, and the other three boys roar his lines serially or chorally at the one playing Juliet. When Tybalt and Mercutio clash swords, they understand that the two swordsmen are only playing, just as 14-year-old boys will whack the hell out of each other with their fists, for the sheer joy of hitting and being hit. Only Romeo, his testosterone temporarily diverted by his love for Juliet, does not understand, and his lack of empathy has tragic results. The four schoolboys come to understand Shakespeare’s truths by playing them out, and we, watching them, come to understand them too. And, at the end, when Romeo and Juliet lie dead and the nightingale’s song gives way to the lark’s, these four young men are bonded together by understanding, which is just like being bonded together by love.
It is 1st Stage’s avowed mission to give new actors their first professional experience, and in Shakespeare’s R & J they deliver this mission in spades. Three of the four actors are college students making their professional debuts. The fourth, Jacob Yeh, is only a few years out and still establishing his professional credentials. It doesn’t matter; these guys are fine. Alex Mandell, who plays the young man who plays Romeo, is particularly strong. Not only does he radiate the charisma that Romeo, as the leader of his particular band of brothers must exude, he makes us realize that Romeo is not the lascivious hound his name implies, but a young man so needy that he must always be in love, or else be in despair.
Yeh plays the young man who assumes the role of Juliet, and to our everlasting benefit he does not walk away from his own gender to do it. Yeh’s Juliet is soft, gentle and thoughtful, as some men (including, perhaps, the young man he plays) are soft, gentle and thoughtful. In playing her this way, Yeh may have actually given us more insight, into the character and the play, than we got from the technically dazzling performance given by the young man who played her in the Shakespeare Theatre’s all-male Romeo and Juliet last September.
The remaining actors – Aeneas Hemphill (who plays the young man playing Tybalt and the Nurse, among other roles) and Jonathan Elliot (who plays the young man playing Mercutio and the Friar, among other roles) also do good work, although Elliot will have to work on his diction if he intends to do much Shakespeare professionally.
As always, this young’s company’s technical work is of the highest quality. Peter Van Valkenburgh’s sound, which is as authentic as the young actors’ performances, is particularly noteworthy. Director Mark Krikstan has constructed an astonishing set entirely from bamboo. The actors climb up and down it with an eerie confidence, which is as much credit to Krikstan the director as it is Krikstan the set designer. The confidence is well placed; the bamboo set seems as strong as steel. Finally, Paul Gallagher’s fight choreography is among the best I’ve seen this year. The duel between Tybalt and Mercutio (in this production, Mercutio is clearly the better fighter) – which must be done convincingly, or the play falls apart – here takes advantage of every available inch of the stage, and flows like ballet.
Shakespeare’s R & J marks the last of 1st Stage’s five first season shows. There will be a second season. Several people deserve credit for this good young company’s survival in the face of the worst economy since the Carter administration, but Artistic Director Mark Krikstan deserves particular homage. He has assembled an excellent team of artists; together with them converted empty storefront space into a theater; selected excellent plays; directed four of them himself with insight and panache; persevered, and persuaded his colleagues to persevere, in the face of significant economic challenges; and helped his company exhibit high professionalism in every aspect of its operation. He has bonded his community – his artists, his executive leaders, and his audience – together with understanding, which is just like being bonded together by love.
Shakespeare’s R & J
adapted by Joe Calarco from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
directed by Mark Krikstan
produced by 1st Stage
reviewed by Tim Treanor