Thursday, November 21, 2013

My Experience with Romeo and Juliet

So last night, I went to see the Folger Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet, the start of their 2013-2014 season (as a side not, I have actually seen their season opener show every year for the past three years, thanks to the marvelous UMBC Honors College!). Now, before, as Dr. Spitz would say "daily life presses in and the magic of the theater is gone", I thought I'd spit out my thoughts on the production, for whatever members of the public care to read it. This assumes you are familiar with Romeo and Juliet, but not with this production of it (Show details and spoilers contained below so look out). This is the third time I've seen Romeo and Juliet (I saw it in the summer, with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, during "Shakespeare in the Ruins" and I saw it as a high school production with Granite Classical Tutorials).

The Good:
Some scenes were absolutely amazing. I'd been told beforehand (by the lovely Michelle Osherow, an actress in this particular show, the Folger's resident dramaturg, and by far one of my favorite UMBC professors) to look for the scene with Juliet's stuffed animal, so I did, and I really liked how that played out. It's the traditional balcony scene, but in it, Juliet appears to be consulting with her stuffed bunny about her feelings for Romeo. When she realizes he has been listening, she throws away her bunny and runs to talk to him. That, as Dr. Osherow points out, lets us "say much about Juliet's coming of age in the story--the transition from child to adult and the vulnerability signified by the object".

Following this transition, Juliet changes into a much more womanly character - both figuratively and literally, in that she changes costumes. Note that she was the only character to completely change costume - which I found to be an extremely interesting choice. What started as a slightly scruffy little girl costume (short gray dress, hipster glasses) transitioned to a more sexy woman's costume (very sheer white lace dress, black fishnet stockings), and ultimately just a black bra and pajama pants (when she and Romeo are sharing their final farewells). There were some other costumes, but those where the most notable for me. Juliet was definitely the star in terms of character development, and the actress played that out well, demonstrating the innocence of the child up to the resolve of the woman who ultimately kills herself over her husband's dead body. My hat is off to the actress who played Juliet.

Connected to my affinity for Juliet, I found one scene, where Lord Capulet is abusing his wife and daughter, to be absolutely horrific. He is yelling at Juliet for not marrying Paris, and Lady Capulet gets in between him and her daughter and gets slapped. I know I audibly gasped when he 'slapped' Lady Capulet. There's a particular part of the show where he is pacing up and down the middle aisle while Juliet, Lady Capulet and her Nurse are all hugging each other in the corner, and I was filled with outrage at this scene. I remember thinking "He's being a drunk abusive father!" (Lord Capulet is seen holding a glass with some kind of alcohol in 90% of his scenes in the show if not more). It was such a contrast to the happy father that we'd seen before, so all in all a very powerful scene.

In fact, the entire Capulet family in this production was really admirable. Juliet and her father I have already discussed, so I'll touch briefly on the rest - Lady Capulet had what I feel like is the appropriate steely resolve for a woman who is stuck in an abusive marriage (and at that time had no way to get out), and she did actually look like the actress who played Juliet, so they had a believable chemistry as a mother-daughter pair. The woman who played Juliet's Nurse played it much as the Nurse is always played - a slightly comic character who sympathizes with Juliet - but she played it well, upping the comedic elements. I also really liked the actor who played Tybalt - I've never seen him as a sympathetic character, but always as a villain. In this production, his indignation at Romeo attending the Capulet's party seemed more justified, and his fighting more "for the honor of my family" than "I'm a hot blood who just likes fighting".

The Bad:
One choice the director of this show made was to have multiple scenes playing on stage at the same time. It's a bit tough to explain if you don't see it, but essentially, when things are happening at the same time but in different places, they are on stage at the same time, saying their lines alternately with each other. It makes some artistic sense, to express that these are concurrent events, but I found it hard to follow and improbable (i.e. when Juliet is standing in front of Romeo, even though I realize they're supposed to be in different scenes, it frustrates me that they don't talk and just resolve the problems).

The way they chose to do Friar Lawrence was not my favorite. I've seen very religious Friars, I've seen Vegas Friars (Leonardo DiCaprio movie, if you're wondering), but I've never seen one before where they focused on the drug-dealer kind of personality the Friar has with his non-poison for Juliet. This Friar opened his scene with a flower and some humorous comments about the power of plants, particularly weeds, which got a few chuckles. It's an interpretive choice, and the actor played it well, but I didn't like it all that much.

I also found this interpretation of Mercutio to be a bit too bawdy for my taste. The Mercutio I was expecting is usually a friend of Romeo's trying to bring him out of his funk - this interpretation had him, in my opinion, being more selfish, looking for his drinking buddy to return and mocking Romeo. I feel like the famous Queen Mab speech (which doesn't make much sense, I agree, but which can be very engaging) fell a little flat, and that, for a dying man, he was yelling awfully loud about a plague on both their houses. What I liked about the interpretation of Tybalt (i.e. rather than being a villain, her was provoked) came from what I didn't like about this Mercutio (rather than defending his friend, he was selfishly looking for some fun). Similar comments apply to Benvolio's character.

Now, in all the productions of Romeo and Juliet that I've seen, I have never really like Romeo - I mean, the guy is just a flake. "Oh I love Rosalind" "Oh forget Rosalind I've seen a new beauty" "Oh Tybalt, you're my cousin I won't kill you" "Oh Tybalt, you slew my friend, death to you" - he can't really make up his mind about anything. That being said, this particular Romeo actor didn't do a bad job, he just got stuck playing what I perceive to be an annoying character.

The Ugly: (or the miscellaneous, as I wouldn't say it's ugly, just things that didn't fit anywhere else)

The Montague parents didn't get a lot of stage time, which is probably good because, since Dr. Osherow was playing Lady Montague, and I had a hard time trying to separate out my beloved professor from Romeo's mother when I saw her on stage - although she was an excellent actress, especially in her chilling suicide scene. One thing I did observe was that Lady Capulet looks a lot younger than either of the Montague parents or of her husband, which was unusual.

Benvolio carries a flashlight lantern that got shined in my eyes several times based on my seat in the theatre. Annoying, but not the fault of the actor, as he's just holding a prop and trying to say his lines at the same time.

Final Note:
My favorite production so far of Romeo and Juliet is still the GCT high school one (even though this one was good). There's just something different about seeing Romeo and Juliet being acted out by actual teenagers, not adults pretending to be teenagers. Also, since the show at GCT included a range of actors from ages 13-18, the show had much more innocence and was really about teenage puppy love rather than about the sex, drugs, rebellion etc. that adult shows make it. However, I love the Folger and will keep seeing shows there and really do want to applaud the 13 cast members of Romeo and Juliet for their performance (and to thank Brian Dykstra, who plays Lord Capulet, for his interesting and insightful actor blog posts on the Folger's Production Blog!)

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