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Romeo and Juliet

A Lovely Libretto Bails Out in the End

Shakespeare Theater Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Monday, September 19, 2016, O–106&107 (center stalls)
Directed by Alan Paul

Juliet in a white, sleveless dress, and Romeo in gray t-shirt leaning against her lay their hands together, palms up.
Juliet (Ayana Workman) and Romeo (Andrew Veenstra) talk palm to palm in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Below, Tybalt (Alex Mickiewicz, left) and Mercutio (Jeffrey Carlson) rumble as Romeo watches. Photos by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

We are in a New Jersey catering banquet hall. It is overwhelmingly red: the walls, the carpet, the balcony railings, the cushions on the gold-frame chairs are all solid crimson, as are the candles at an altar in the back. The bar is white and the fake potted plants are green, but the rest is red, and a convex mirror at the center of this two-tiered stage designed by Dane Laffrey reflects the red all around (and at times reflects bright stage spots right back at the audience).

With this set for the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the only thing that changes as scenes shift from town square to Capulet home to church to mausoleum is that mirror. It becomes a window through which we see the deejay for the Capulet’s party, a statue of the Virgin Mary in Friar Laurence’s cell, a suit of armor in the crypt, and a dash of amore with Juliet waiting in hot anxiety for her wedding night and, later, Romeo meeting with Juliet while the Capulets make marriage plans for their daughter to Paris.

Stage scenery reflects the mind of Director Alan Paul as both conceptual and practical. Paul’s perfectly flexible setting is bathed in a hot hue and full of surprises (though a balcony crosses the entire stage, this production has no balcony scene). However, reflected spotlights blinding at least the couple sitting in the middle of row O is an unintended consequence. Likewise, some of Paul’s choices in textual alterations have unintended consequences. What starts as an insightful, perfectly paced staging loses its footing and stumbles to an unsatisfactory end.

This is Paul’s first opportunity to helm a Shakespeare play from scratch. A 2006 graduate of Northwestern University, Paul became a resident assistant director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) in Washington, D.C., in 2007 and is currently the theater’s associate artistic director. He’s assisted on several Shakespeare productions and oversaw revivals for STC’s annual Free For All summer productions. But it is in the world of opera and musicals where Paul has gained directing laurels, and over the past three years for STC he helmed Kiss Me, Kate, Man of La Mancha, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, all critical hits.

That is the special experience he brings to this Romeo and Juliet. Paul has cast his performers as much for their vocal skills as for their acting talents, not just in their command of the verse but for the quality of their timbre and pacing: the actors giving their verse readings an easy casualness that is yet emphatically poetic. Despite STC's name and pedigree, I and other critics and Shakespeare fans have long knocked the company's productions for their muddled verse-speaking qualities (one reason why their non-Shakespeare plays are among my favorite of their titles). However, with As You Like It two years ago, Othello last season, The Tempest in this summer’s Free For All, and now this Romeo and Juliet, the verse-speaking skills at STC have come up to the standards commonplace at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, and both the Folger Theatre and Taffety Punk across town.

This becomes noticeably evident in the opening scene. Peter (Shravan Amin) is vacuuming the banquet hall carpet when he stops and speaks Chorus’s lines, his lazy Jersey accent blending with the rhythm of the verse. It gets applause for being so out-of- the-ordinary yet simple. Sampson (Elan Zafir) and Gregory (Chris Genebach) make solid landings with their violently sexual punning leading into the first big Capulet-Montague brawl. Then comes the conversation between cousins Benvolio and Romeo about the latter’s lack-of-love-recompense depression. This conversation, so often an extended waste of time and even embarrassingly bad in some productions I've seen, here is sharp, witty, and engrossingly played by Andrew Veenstra as Romeo and Jimmie “J.J.” Jeter as Benvolio.

The hunky handsome Veenstra is one of the most intelligent Romeos I've seen, though still a young man with raging hormones. Jeter’s Benvolio is a smart dude, too, but he doesn’t totally get Romeo and his compounded allegories: “Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs, being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes, being vexed, a sea nourished with loving tears,” Romeo tells Benvolio. I can imagine a young Bruce Springsteen talking like this (to wit, “With a boulder on my shoulder, feeling kinda older, I tripped a merry-go-round, with this very unpleasing sneezing and wheezing, the calliope crashed to the ground” in “Blinded by the Light”).

“I want the audience to walk in the theater and see people that look and dress like them on the stage,” Paul writes in his director’s notes. Perhaps that’s why I’m getting a New Jersey vibe in Paul’s staging because I spent my high school years in that state, and my own teen-formed hormones of that time frame are forever locked in that psychological environment. How many of those gauche red banquet halls have I been in? And having made frequent return visits to and through Jersey, I haven’t seen the cultural landscape evolve all that much since the mid-'70s (and, hey, I remain a loyal standard-bearer of the state). Costume Designer Kaye Voyce gives the kids stylish threads, but Lady Capulet wears a disco-perfect jumpsuit and Lady Montague is in baggy polka dots and shin-high black pants. What most convinces me that this setting is North Jersey’s Verona is the girl at the Capulet party who looks much like Snooki of Jersey Shore fame.

“Certain behaviors can seem inevitable when you’re in period costume, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to set the play in modern dress,” Paul writes. “If you look at the dysfunction of the Capulet family in modern day, then it becomes a family dynamic that people will really understand.” Paul makes the “dysfunction of the Capulet family” his primary focus, which leads to some unusual staging choices (especially if you don’t consider the Capulets that Shakespeare portrayed as dysfunctional; I don’t think they are and have seen them as a tight, loving unit in effective productions).

The rivalry between the Capulets and Montagues is not ethnic or racial (each side is of mixed races and ethnicities) nor economic, per se, as much as it is cultural. The Capulets are downtowners: Capulet (Keith Hamilton Cobb) has the look of a wealthy purveyor of services, owning the banquet hall and various other entertainment businesses, and his servants and cousin Tybalt (Alex Mickiewicz) are Mafia-like in behavior and fashion. When Lady Capulet (Judith Lightfoot Clarke) talks with Juliet (Ayana Workman) and Nurse (Inga Ballard) in their first scene together, two hotly dressed, stiletto-heeled young women stand with trays of jewelry, perfume, and adorable shoes at Lady Capulet’s beck. The Montagues are suburban preppies: the kids wear cool clothes and act with an air of sophistication (even before brawling), and Montague (Timothy Carter) could be head of an investment banking firm or the president of nearby Montclair State University while his wife (Emily Townley) is comfortably proper in her traditional housewife role. Romeo and Juliet are purposely uncategorical: she in casual but sharp blouse, jeans, party dress, sleepwear, and underwear; he affecting a hoodlum look but with designer jeans, snug-fitting extra-large gray tee, and hot midway briefs.

For all his poetic intelligence and cool-factor, Veenstra’s Romeo is a romantic in the most carnal sense, a smooth operator using his wit and wiles to seduce. His primary complaint in his conversation with Benvolio is how Rosaline won’t requite his overtures by putting out. “She will not stay the siege of loving terms, nor bide th’encounter of assailing eyes, nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold,” he says. To hear Veenstra speak with confounded frustration of how Rosaline is “too fair, too wise, wisely too fair, to merit bliss by making me despair” tells us all we need to know about this Romeo’s obsession. Rosaline rebuffs him again at Capulet’s party (she ends up hanging with Tybalt and in the end leading him out by the hand; um, but they are cousins, right?), and then he spies Juliet. We see his seduction skills at work with her (in fact, he uses the same physical touch I used with my Jersey girlfriend in high school), and she rightly acknowledges he kisses “by the book,” but, boy, does she love it. In the balcony scene—actually, the banquet floor scene: they sit at the tables on the main floor as they poetically spar over names, oaths, and their love’s depths—Veenstra’s Romeo turns from obsession with seduction into infatuation with the girl herself. I think as their courtship races into marriage, he’s surprised by how much he has fallen in love with Juliet, and that's part of what so anguishes him after Mercutio is killed. “O sweet Juliet, thy beauty hath made me effeminate, and in my temper softened valor’s steel!” he cries, his self-image as an edgy poet warrior having been defaced by his own heartstrings.

Workman gives a smart and passionate reading of Juliet. However, when you update the setting of Verona but keep Juliet’s age as a tween-ager in manner as well as in the verse, it makes Romeo’s relationship with her seem something slightly sinister, blocking our own acceptance of this love affair, no matter how hard (Workman) or how well (Veenstra) sell its truth.

The production has some riveting moments along the way. Jeffrey Carlson as Mercutio in a metallic silver suit, a shock of blond hair, and a Jon Bon Jovi aspect, speaks his lines slow and low. Rather than the frantic madman I too often see, Carlson’s Mercutio is the ironic, counterculture artist living at society's edges. Even his Queen Mab speech is a tale woven in earnest, mesmerizing the other guys with not just the images pouring forth from Mercutio's mouth but for the tale of the dream queen herself. Romeo finally sees its endless loop and interrupts, which allows Mercutio to bring home his point. "True," he says matter-of-factly, "I talk of dreams" (back in your face, bro) "which are the children of an idle brain begot of nothing but vain fantasy” (we’re done here).

Such a character is bound to blame others (“a plague o’both the houses!”) for his own actions. In the text, Mercutio, kin to the Prince of Verona, invited to the Capulet’s party, and best buds with Romeo Montague, goads Tybalt into fighting, not once but twice. Paul’s staging visually highlights this by having Tybalt just about to shake Romeo’s proffered hand (on Romeo’s line, “And so, good Capulet—which name I tender as dearly as my own—be satisfied”) when Mercutio yells out “O calm, dishonorable, vile submission!” Obviously, peace between the houses is not in his personal interest, for whatever reason.

Tybalt in purple jacket, blue pants, no socks and black shoes thrusts a knife at and holds the right arm of Mercutio with a black and white running jacket, dirty white pants and tennis shoes, Romeo in the background with gray Tee and black pants, and around them is the red decor of the catering banquet hall.The two fight scenes are electrifyingly staged (David Leong, fight choreographer), and even Friar Laurence (Ron Menzel) shows a streak of fighting spirit. Veenstra moves into the best moments of his portrayal of Romeo when, upon hearing of his banishment from Verona, he exhibits an overly demonstrative show of passion (how hard for an actor to truthfully portray a character’s exaggerated truth), culminating with his accusation to the priest that "Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel." Laurence can’t slap Romeo upside the head at that moment because he has to address Nurse’s incessant knocking at the door, but he lets loose his vitriol when Romeo soon after threatens to kill himself. “Art thou a man?” Menzel’s Friar yells and launches into his lecture with such ferocity and physical possibility to go with it (arm back, fist clenched, hovering over Romeo as if ready to knock him into next week) that Romeo cowers in true fear of getting a beating from the Friar that he knows will hurt like hell.

Unfortunately, this is the last engaging moment of the production as Paul turns his attention to the “dysfunction” of the Capulet family. Not showing much affection for each other in the first place, Lord and Lady Capulet emotionally distance themselves from each other as they both go into contemplative funks. We see all this as they keep appearing on the periphery of scenes in which they are not participating: Lady Capulet curls up in a corner on one side of the stage as Romeo and Juliet across the way part in the morning; Lord Capulet sits at one of the banquet tables as we see Juliet in her bedroom drink the potion.

With the focus frayed and huge chunks of text trimmed, the production rushes to an ending in the Capulet crypt, where Paul’s earlier choices now leave us wanting. Paris (Gregory Wooddell) has been cast as an obvious cad (same motivation as Romeo but without the smooth seduction skills), interested in marrying Juliet only for status and easy sex. Why would such a guy venture to Juliet’s grave nightly to keep “obsequies” for her? He wouldn’t, and so Paul cuts him out of the final scene for Romeo to kill. Thus, we have no idea what “brace of kinsmen” the Prince later says he has lost: Mercutio is one, but who’s the other? Paul pretty much stuck to the text for his script, but he didn't stage to the text, so we get several self-inflicted anachronisms, such as Nurse describing how she saw the wound on Tybalt’s “manly breast,” but what we clearly saw was Tybalt's head wound as Romeo beat the snot out of him. Lady Montague, on the other hand, does show up in the final scene, having not died from heartbreak (Paul isn’t really as interested in the dynamics of the Montague family as he is the Capulet family).

It all makes for a so-what? ending, a real tragedy for a production that started out with such great promise.

Eric Minton
October 2, 2016

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