Fresh from winning both Best Overall Show and Audience Choice Best Comedy at this summer’s Pick of the Fringe Awards, Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending is back with both a bang and a whimper, courtesy of two characters who in the original are relatively minor. Here they come forcefully into their own, in Ann and Shawn Fraistat’s irreverent take on what is arguably (or so conventional wisdom has it) everybody’s favorite Shakespeare play.
The Fraistat siblings are part of a talented troupe of University of Maryland alums who bring to fallFRINGE their seasoned, silly yet spot-on (and almost sold-out — so hurry) combination of collegiate and Colbertian humor in the play that many of us remember fondly as our introduction to the Bard. True to its title, the show in its course asks its auds to decide at three critical junctures what choice one of the characters should make, making the famous ending anything but inevitable.
If you have fears — that Shakespeare could be therein compromised, and would be thereby scandalized — prepare to shed them now. [Yes, I know, the play’s on Caesar there. And here, maybe Hamlet. But the Impressionable Players’ hyper-literate lunacy inspires such cheek.]
Why? Because, were Will to get a whiff of these goings-on, he wouldn’t know what hit him.
We enter to the melodious, sixteenth-century sounds of amplified rock and take our seats, uncertain if we might have taken a wrong turn out there in the back lot. We are soon somewhat reassured, as a sextet of players in Elizabethan modern (jeans and jabots) immediately and without ceremony shatter the Fourth Wall, laying out the plot in the manner of the Prologue in the original, their poetry as playful as its iambic pentameter is skillful.
Enter Romeo (James Waters, who brings a boyish helplessness, humor and sincerity to the role), his denim jacket and black tights set off by a red peasant shirt and sneakers, reading “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” and trying in vain to find a rhyme for “temperate.” We sense that he should not quit his day job.
Romeo’s cousin Benvolio (the artfully malevolent Rob Mueller) sweeps in, his words and countenance betraying a wry, almost Iago-like cynicism that undercuts his apparent lofty idealism and brings a new complexity to the character that will inform our feelings about not just him, but the choices others will make in the course of the play.
Mercutio (Jayme Bell), Romeo’s best friend, comes “bearing good tidings — and access to free booze” at the Capulets’ party, along with plastic, six-for-a-dollar mustaches meant to serve, alone, as somewhat doubtful disguises (and which, in any event, keep falling off). Bell is a beaut, with wide, antic eyes and hilariously malicious grin, his lithe body and balletic grace making quick work of utterly superfluous but, hey, elegantly executed leaps and pirouettes. In Bell’s masterful hands, Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” diatribe builds to a frightening crescendo clearly fueled by nightmares born of wartime experience, only to swiftly switch, as if literally flipped by a switch, to glib, devil-may-care comedy. (“Jesus, Mercutio,” responds a shaken Romeo. “Maybe you should . . . talk to someone?”)
The young Montague has his own problems, of course, not least of which is his inconvenient proclivity to fall in love with Capulet girls. The first, Rosaline (Katie Jeffries), Juliet’s older and wiser cousin, could match Mercutio’s cynicism and rapier-sharp wit hit for hit. (“Ros, I cannot fly without thy love,” implores a mournful Romeo, looking up at her with puppy eyes. “Fine!” she snaps, all business and privilege, her navy suit incongruously accented with billowy, cuffed chiffon sleeves and rhinestones. “Then molt thy way out of my sight.”)
Still, she will later listen, if reluctantly, as Romeo again professes his adoration, the intensity of her pain — a magnificent moment for Jeffries — subtly reflected in her expressive, intelligent eyes and the almost imperceptible, seemingly unconscious trembling of her tensely clenched cheeks. (Juliet, in a scene of sisterly frankness and tenderness, will accuse her of refusing Romeo’s advances because she was hurt once and fears being hurt again.)
For her part, Juliet (Kyra Corradin), a vision in turquoise from tight-fitting top to footless tights, is a romantic idealist, sweet but determined, and capable of both fiery oratory (“Men! Men! Wherefore art men men?” groans she with exasperated eye-roll) and poetic piquancy (moving mischievously to sonnet form as she declares that cousin Ros is in love with Romeo).
But then, love is in the air everywhere: Juliet’s second suitor, the persistent but self-centered Paris (a dark, hunky, hot-tempered and decibel-shattering Matt Sparacino, raiments of regal gold covering the few body parts he isn’t flexing) is in his turn lusted after by her Nurse (a hilariously high-pitched and hooting Jayme Bell). Nurse, meanwhile, tries to guide her confused charge, counseling her patiently and repeatedly not to fall for the fickle Benvolio, only to give up in exasperation as Juliet swoons into his arms (“No one ever listens to me!!!” shrieks Bell’s Nurse, surrendering helplessly and hilariously to hysteria).
And Rosaline? Deciding to put Romeo to the test, which she fully expects (and secretly hopes) he will fail, Rosaline dons groundlings’ garb, swaggers in rude and mustachioed — Jeffries’ complete metamorphosis here is straight out of the Silents, yet oddly compelling — and loudly disparages marriage. Will Romeo’s impassioned affirmation in response sway her?
Sparacino turns his regal baritone to leonine ferocity as Juliet’s cousin Tybalt as he challenges Benvolio to a duel following a verbal altercation. Should Romeo try to make peace between them, the audience is asked, or take sides in the fight? (Suffice it to say, we — with a few very vocal but sadly out-shouted exceptions, including Your Obedient Critic — were a bloodthirsty bunch.) And having killed Tybalt, will he ever be able to convince a tearful, deadly cold and unforgiving Ros that there were mitigating circumstances? As a suddenly older, but perhaps no wiser Romeo sadly informs us, bleary-eyed and taking swigs out of a paper bag: “Tybalt perished. Benvolio parted. Rosaline pissed ”
That’s one thing you won’t be — unless, of course, you’re a purist. (Not, as Mercutio might say, that there’s anything wrong with that.) In which case, you might still admire the skill with which these professional-caliber actors execute this enterprise, with several of them — Kate Jeffries, as Rosaline and the Friar; Jayme Bell as Mercutio and the Nurse; Rob Mueller as Benvolio and Juliet’s father; and Matt Sparacino a quadruple threat as Tybalt, Paris, the Prince, and Romeo’s father — taking on more than one role.
Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending offers both a smashing good time and the opportunity to contemplate what makes good storytelling — and why the Bard chose as he did in this immortal tale of love and death.
Last chance to catch these Fringe returns. Festival closes this weekend, Nov 21, 2010:
Do Not Kill Me, Killer Robot
Freud Meets Girl
Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite
Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending
The Poet Warriors
This Is Your Brain on Rock and Roll