Somehow I missed the beginning of Aaron Posner’s Romeo and Juliet. Not the famous beginning — “Two households, both alike in dignity,” — but the real one, which must have happened while I was reading the playbill or writing notes about the set (“Black poles in blue light. Skeleton of a building with an elevator shaft.”). At some point I looked up from my lap for more details and saw a couple of kids on a scaffold. She was reading, he was writing. They paid no attention to the audience, or to the families that gathered below them for the famous beginning, or to the aging chorus who told us where we were and what was going to happen. She kept reading, he kept writing, until it was time for them to come down from the scaffold and take up their roles.
I call it Aaron Posner’s Romeo and Juliet because his editing and staging choices uncover a play I’ve never seen before inside a play that I know well: the story of the generation left behind to tell the story of the furious young woman and the wild young man who refused to be thwarted by their elders.
One of those choices is sending out the title characters unnoticed and leaving them above the fray, not even watching it, because they know already that it’s going to kill them. Why should they watch? The elders are the ones who ought to pay attention.
Another is casting the same actor, Eric Hissom, to play three important older men: the prince, who represents established order, Friar Lawrence, who tries to help the lovers work around established order, and the clearly distinct chorus, which knows from the beginning how those machinations end. How are we supposed to reconcile those conflicts in ourselves?
Hissom looks like the emblem of the Clinton Generation: short gray hair and beard, balding in a way that makes him look wise, a lot of head above his eyebrows. He wears earth-toned fibers over a physique with all its service records in tact, and his voice has the mellow baritone of a man who might have sung for money in the Paris metro.
When the rival families interrupt his introduction with their ancient quarrel, he governs them with nothing but his gaze, finishes his poem, then becomes the prince and tells them that he doesn’t want to see another drop of blood in the streets of Verona, which belong to him.
Posner collapses the play’s first 80 lines into fifteen seconds of incomprehensible bickering, which allows Hissom to transition from the role of chorus to the role of prince by merely turning on his heel toward the rabble.
In doing so, Posner suggests that the figure of authority already knows what happens when you govern by decree, already knows what happens when an older generation makes its children live by senseless norms, already knows that norms like his have made the world impossible for anyone but men like him to live in, especially younger men and women, who already know more about the world he’s made for them than he does.
But the choice that most effectively makes this play look like the story of the generation left behind is connecting those two characters to Friar Lawrence, the older man who’s not an older man. Like Juliet’s nurse, whom she loves, Friar Lawrence is apart from all the madness of his generation. Romeo and Juliet will turn to him when they’re in trouble because he has a foot in both worlds — the world of convention and the world of ideals. In this play, he’s like a Berkeley Jesuit who takes his own vocation with a grain of salt and a gram of marijuana. When we meet him in the second act, he’s snuffing a joint to save the rest for later and speaking a heavily edited version of Shakespeare’s lines, in the airless voice of someone trying to hold his hit as long as possible.
“O, mickle is the powerful grace in the true quality of weed,” he squeaks. “And herb!” Then he lets his toke out and acknowledges that virtue itself turns to vice, being misapplied, and we get the sense that he’s accepted moderation as the way to which we all must come eventually, if not right now.
Thus his bona fides. Of course the younger generation turns to him: he’s the only older guy they know who looks like someone they could bear to be. When he calls Romeo “young son” and asks if he’s up early or has not yet gone to bed, it’s clear that he hopes for the chance to pardon certain sins with a clap on the back and a couple of ‘at-a-boys’. And it’s clear that Romeo loves him. But as you watch them play the scene, you keep recalling that the man agreeing to marry Romeo and Juliet behind their parents’ backs already knows what’s going to happen, and the look on Hissom’s face as Romeo unpacks his heart is a troubling mix of yearning and regret: in Romeo he sees the self he might have been until he yielded to restraint. He knows that Romeo is eager to be ruled by the endorsement of a man whom he admires, and he knows that twenty minutes hence, in the role of the prince, he’ll banish Romeo for life. And he wishes that he didn’t have to do it.
As Romeo, Michael Goldsmith is wilder and more vulnerable in scenes he plays with Friar Lawrence than in scenes he plays with anybody else except for Juliet. Together he and Erin Weaver orchestrate an anthem to the unrestrained excess of youth. They first speak to each other with their backs pressed against adjoining sides of a pillar, so they can’t see one another’s face while they talk about “the palmers’ kiss” and let their hands become acquainted. Goldsmith does a great job of combining bravado with the awe a first kiss ought to make us feel.
But from the moment Weaver laces their fingers together — and you can see that she’s the one who does that — he belongs to her. And so does the play.
Romeo and Juliet
Closes December 1, 2013
201 East Capitol Street, SE
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $47 – $72
Tuesdays thru Sundays
It’s an old man’s vain conceit that he can tell Juliet anything about herself, or how to love, or how to live. As if he could understand a world that somehow holds both him and her! “Shut the door,” she commands him, and he does so, with a look that shows he doesn’t stand a chance with her. Neither does anyone else.
I thought Juliet would kill the Berkeley Jesuit when she woke up in the tomb and found just him, who knew what would happen and did nothing. Just as I knew what would happen, to Juliet and to everybody in her generation. And did nothing. I knew she didn’t kill him in the famous play, but I’d begun to tell the story for myself by then, and I wanted her to have the world, not him. And certainly not me and him. I wondered for a second where she’d point the dagger. Then I pulled my collar down so she could see the softest skin.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Featuring Aaron Bliden, Rex Daugherty, Brian Dykstra, Sherri L. Edelen, Michael Goldsmith, Eric Hissom, Brad Keod, Shannon Koob, Joe Mallon, Allen McCullough, Matthew McGee, Michele Osherow, and Erin Weaver. Composer: Carla Kihlstedt . Set Designer: Meghan Raham, Scenic Designer . Costume Designer: Laree Lentz . Lighting Designer: Jennifer Schriever . Sound Designer: Christopher Baine . Fight Director: Casey Dean Kaleba . Resident Dramaturg: Michele Osherow . Production Stage Manager: Jocelyn Henjum . Assistant Stage Manager: Keri Schultz . Produced by The Folger Theater. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.
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