The short answers to my two biggest questions about Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age are yes and yes.
The questions themselves were as follows: Does the white hot, love at first sight romance ignite as quickly when Romeo and Juliet are old enough to have seen Truman in the White House? And does the ultimate fate of the most famous fictional lovers in the English language find its bitter sting with an elderly pair?
Other questions were not so easily answered by this twist on Shakespeare’s classic that transposes the innocent love of two youths to two septuagenarian residents of a senior living center. The director Christopher Goodrich stated in his program notes, “I am often uncomfortable with modern adaptations of Shakespeare.” I would pose that revising the settings of Shakespeare’s work often works like a charm. Unexpected Stage Company’s Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age is a more complicated affair.
As I entered the Randolph Road Theater for this rather unexpected take on Shakespeare’s classic, I decided to keep my mind open for this converse of the traditional tragic romance. The opening scene set up the world succinctly: there are still two feuding factions inside of the Verona Senior Living Community. Instead of Prince, there is a head administrator (Justus Hammond) who tries to keep the peace between the irascible residents. It is established early on in the play that these pensioners will resort to violence and bloodshed if they are pushed too far. That may sound odd, but in this manner the play’s action builds up to the clash that leaves Juliet’s uncle Tybalt (colorfully played by Kim Curtis) and Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Justus Hammond) murdered. It looked more like “Law and Order: Senior Victim’s Unit” than a street fight in old Verona.
When Romeo enters the scene, he is in the person of Elliott Bales who gives a sensitive portrayal of the doomed lover. Tall, distinguished with white hair and beard, he looks like he is ready for King Lear – and that is a compliment. Bales has such a command of Shakespeare’s verse, many of Romeo’s lines take on a fresh meaning. When Romeo tells Benvolio (Karen Fleming) that love is “a madness most discreet, A choking gall and a preserving sweet” it comes from a man who has lived a long life rather than a young passionate man of not yet 20. Physically, Bales is expressive and his Romeo has nothing to impede him from taking a lover.
Juliet is now a woman whom we are told is about to celebrate her 70th birthday. Juliet, played by Claire Schoonover. The tall and willowy Schoonover made for a youthful 70-year old, which is certainly believable. At times, Schoonover’s Juliet comes off as if she is still trying to be the teenager, bubbling with a giddy, girlish prattle. As the play progresses, her Juliet sheds the youthful exuberance and finds a proper balance of love-sick girl and mature woman. The second act begins with Juliet’s famous “Gallop apace you fiery footed steeds”-speech, and Schoonover’s delivery of the soliloquy soared with urgency.
During Juliet’s birthday party at the Verona Senior Living Community, Romeo spies her from across the crowded room and sparks immediately fly. The sudden attraction between Bales and Schoonover as the famous pair was palpable and they made for a handsome and passionate couple. On this note, the director and actors proved the premise of the production that love transcends physical age and is an affair of the heart. When they share their wedding night together, entwined as lovers, Juliet’s heart aches for more as she purrs, “Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day: It was the nightingale, and not the lark That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.”
One of the more successful changes for Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age was really not a change at all. Kecia A. Campbell, as Juliet’s nurse, exuded good humor much like her comic counterpart in Shakespeare’s original text. Campbell established a close relationship to Schoonover’s Juliet that was warm and their devotion to each other was solid.
ROMEO AND JULIET: LOVE KNOWS NO AGE
July 16 – August 9
Unexpected Stage Company
at Randolph Road Theatre
4010 Randolph Road
Silver Spring, MD
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets or call 800-838-3006
Goodrich’s production collaborators made excellent contributions, starting with Kristen Jepperson whose scenic design was a spot on recreation of a comfortable, senior-friendly retirement home. The elevator with its own Muzak was a delightful touch, as well as the changing floor numbers that guided the audience through the different locations within the building. Briana Manente’s costume design’s ranged from pj’s and robes and elegant fashions for the party scene. One of DC’s best fight director’s, Casey Kaleba, provided a contemporary spin on the usual Romeo and Juliet skirmishes, this time with scissors, knives and canes. Within the established universe of Verona as an old folk’s home, the changes had artistic merit.
Less comfortable, in my view, in this topsy-turvy world, are the forces that stand in the way of Juliet and her Romeo. Instead of callous parents with an age-old rivalry, now they are their adult children and caregivers. Montague is now Romeo’s daughter (Tiffany Garfinkle), who visits her father in the home. Juliet’s son is an even greater threat to her happiness. Capulet (an intense Josh Adams) and daughter-in-law (Dawn Thomas Reidy) have decided to pawn mom off on the aged Mr. Paris (Ken Lechter) so they do not have to pay for her care anymore. After her secret marriage to Romeo, the Capulet’s inform Juliet of her impending marriage to Paris. Instead of a father insisting on a productive marriage, the son rails at his own mother and shouts that she will “go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church, Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.” To add insult to injury, Capulet knocks Juliet to the ground yelling “Out, you green-sickness carrion! out, you baggage!” I think I can say truthfully the scene made me more uncomfortable than any performance I have seen on stage in years.
This is where Shakespeare’s play seemed grafted on to some other tragedy. Maybe that is what director Christopher Goodrich was aiming to achieve. At this point it also struck me that a true adaptation where the characters and the template of the story was used but not the actual full length Shakespeare text would have opened the possibilities for thematic and dramatic development more successfully. As it is, I saw two plays on at the Randolph Road Theater that did not always synch up.
[Traffic Note: Due to work on sections of railroad, there will be detours along Randolph Road from July 18 to approximately July 26. Patrons are urged to plan accordingly.]
Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age by William Shakespeare . Directed by Christopher Goodrich . Featuring: Elliott Bales, Claire Schoonover, Kecia A. Campbell, Josh Adams, Kim Curtis, Karen Fleming, Tiffany Garfinkle, Justus Hammond, Ken Lechter, Ted Schneider, Rachel Stroud-Goodrich, and Dawn Thomas Reidy . Assistant Director: Clare Shaffer . Fight Director: Casey Kaleba . Production Stage Manager: Brianna Capps . Assistant Stage Manager: Ryan Salomon . Set Designer: Kristen Jepperson . Lighting Designer: Peter Dowty . Sound Designer: Sean Doyle . Costume Designer: Briana Manente . Props Master: John Barbee . Produced by Unexpected Stage Company . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.