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Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age

Retirement Center Setting Cools
Effects of Hot Septuagenarian Lovers

Unexpected Stage Company, Randolph Road Theater, Wheaton, Maryland
Sunday, July 19, 2015, 4th row center of 120-seat theater
Directed by Christopher Goodrich

Directors tackling William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet often deal with a conundrum: Do you cast Romeo and Juliet focusing foremost on their youth or on their poetic lines? Some directors make teen-age exuberance their priority and hope Shakespeare's verse will take care of itself. Others cast adults with the experience and maturity to effectively deliver Shakespeare's verse while hoping that the audience accepts these players as hyperhormonal kids.

Juliet and Romeo lean their foreheads against each other, staring in each other's eyes, she in lose blue dress, he in white shirt, tie and suspenders, a bearded Lawrence with a blue shirt and gold cross around his neck looks down at his marriage book.
Juliet (Claire Schoonover, left) and Romeo (Elliott Bales, right) are married by Friar Lawrence (Ted Schneider) in Unexpceted Stage Company's production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in a modern retirement community. Photo by Lew Lorton/Saul Pleeter, Unexpected Stage Company.

Christopher Goodrich, co-producing artistic director with the Unexpected Stage Company in suburban Washington, D.C., gets around this conundrum in his company's current presentation of Romeo and Juliet by turning Verona into a modern retirement community and casting actors in their 70s to play the couple. It's a premise that delivers more in promise than in practice, but let me tell you, I've never seen a sexier "whoa!" than this Juliet and her Romeo.

This is Unexpected Stage Company's first attempt at staging Shakespeare, and much of the company's inexperience with the verse is evident. Furthermore, in his program notes, Goodrich admits being "uncomfortable with modern adaptations of Shakespeare. I suppose I am a purist at heart—feeling that many adaptations take the focus off of the text and put it squarely on the director." Amen. However, he would have better served himself and the play by venturing into his septuagenarian premise with less trepidation.

As I noted in another adaptation of this play, {Your Name Here} A Queer Theater Company's lesbian-focused Juliet & Romeo in 2013, maintaining too much fealty to Shakespeare's text can be the greater sin when pursuing a radically conceptual reading of the play. Conceptual Shakespeare works best when productions either play the text straight and let the casting and setting itself reveal on a psychological level the production's deeper purpose (as Faction of Fools' A Commedia Romeo and Juliet did) or reconfigure the text for specific purposes (a la Joe Calarco's Shakespeare's R&J). Playing it in the middle makes a muddle. Furthermore, reconceptualizing Shakespeare's purpose is especially tricky with a play that already has so many glaring plot holes and requires the audience to suspend logic for 2 1/2 hours. Setting it in Verona Village: A Senior Living Community exacerbates that.

Yet, I applaud Goodrich's intention, which not only is to explore the intensity of love as an ageless phenomenon of humankind but also to invert the generational conflict in Romeo and Juliet. Rather than parents, it's their children whose dictates govern the worlds of this Romeo and Juliet. "Ours is a society that more often than not infantilizes the elderly," Goodrich writes in his program notes. "And too often, we don't allow the thought that passionate love is possible in the twilight years, that we still have agency over our own choices, and that we are capable of experiencing a love so strong it kills us." When elderly people demonstrate romantic inclinations I all to often see it generate coos of condescension among their offspring and attendants, and reports of retirement communities becoming notorious hotbeds for sexually transmitted diseases instigate gasps of incredulity among younger adults. In Unexpected's production, this attitude emerges in Nurse (Kecia A. Campbell, playing Juliet's attending nurse in the retirement center) recounting Juliet's falling and bumping her head, leading to Nurse's late husband joking that she will fall backward under a man someday. The original text has been slightly altered—rather than a toddler breaking her head, the Juliet in this Nurse's tale is the elderly woman breaking her hip—but the tittering sexual joke remains.

Children's disrespect for their elders can also manifest in far more dangerous ways, however. Son Capulet (Josh Adams) in this version of the story is every bit the self-centered tyrant that father Capulet is in Shakespeare's original. Sure, Adams's Capulet dotes on his mother and provides generously for her livelihood, but he also is controlling his mother's finances and, ultimately, her choices, hoping to marry her to the upstanding and wealthy Paris (not clear in this telling, but my guess is that Paris has no heirs). This 70-year-old Juliet in the 21st century's Verona Village is every bit the ward that 13-year-old Juliet is in the 16th century's fair Verona, and, as Juliet's daughter-in-law (Dawn Thomas Reidy) pointedly urges, "Ladies older than you are made new brides." Meanwhile, Capulet's violent rage toward Juliet when she resists marrying Paris remains in this presentation, a disturbing but accurate depiction of elder abuse.

None of this matters if Romeo and Juliet don't really matter, and in the portrayals by, respectively, Elliott Bales and Claire Schoonover, this Romeo and Juliet matter a lot. Bales, with intelligent verse-reading skills, plays Romeo as a scholar, perhaps a retired professor, who experiences romance literally—literally: His pursuit of Rosaline seems to be based on his literature studies. But when he spies Juliet for the first time at her 70th birthday party (no masks: the shy Romeo has been consorting with himself in the corner of a room), he throws out the book of love and rushes in where the heart leads—despite Juliet gleefully observing that he kisses by the book (no doubt referencing the romance novels she reads). Schoonover, also adept with Shakespeare's poetry, is a fresh-face Juliet, and though a newly minted septuagenarian, she approaches life as an experience of brand-new delights. Even as she's dancing with Paris (Ken Lechter) she notices Romeo looking at her, and when Romeo cuts in and this handsome man with the deeply soulful eyes begins romancing her in sonnet form, she's beyond smitten.

Of all the choices Goodrich makes in his direction, his most important is not holding back on the sexual passion in his titular characters. Prior to this production, I've seen 25 stage and film versions of this play, and I say unequivocally that Bales and Schoonover create the sexiest pair of "young lovers" I've ever seen. That first kiss—several of them, really—is hot. The couple's balcony scene (he enters on a landing to a common room and sees the light of her yonder television) is one of unbridled but nervous passion concluding with him carrying her off to bed. True, Shakespeare wouldn't dare consummate Romeo and Juliet's love before marrying, but Goodrich's Romeo and Juliet have no reason to wait, and this modernization underscores the intensity of their passion. Their wedding, officiated by fellow resident and Unitarian-like Friar Lawrence (Ted Schneider), sees more sumptuous kissing to go along with their lifelong commitment.

Schoonover releases intense heat in her "come night" speech as she caresses a thigh high, lace-trimmed, pink slip in her hands. She's wearing that lingerie, and he is wearing only boxer shorts, in a morning-after scene that skirts the boundaries of PG-13. The foundation for their subsequent tragic choices is well laid: When you've lived the kind of sex that a long-experienced man versed in romantic love and a long-experienced woman open to any and all delights have lived, what else is there to live for?

Via the portrayals of its central romantic relationship and Juliet's relationship with her son and daughter-in-law, this production gets high scores. The setting is also rendered accurately enough (my credentials in this aspect come from previously caring for a mother-in-law with Alzheimer's in a succession of nursing homes and currently spending a quarter of my life visiting my dad in his retirement community). Kristen Jepperson's set is a common room in a typical retirement center, from the ubiquitously cheerful furniture around a fireplace to the puzzles on the coffee table. Off to one side is the administrator's desk with a sign instructing that "Visitors must sign in." To the other side is a landing up a couple of steps to an arched doorway that the audience anticipates will be the balcony (nice feint). At the center of the back wall is an elevator. The set never changes, but changes in setting are dictated by where that elevator goes. The main common room (Verona's town square, as it were) is on the first floor; Juliet's apartment is on the second floor; Friar Lawrence's cell is on the fourth floor; and the final scene in Capulet's crypt takes place in the basement.

Nevertheless, translating Romeo and Juliet's plot and action to a retirement center is hit-and-miss here. Certainly, the way nurses become like family to the residents justifies the role and behavior of Campbell's portrayal of Nurse, and the notion of factions in these communities is not far-fetched. Tybalt (Kim Curtis) as Capulet's hot-headed uncle ready to rumble on an instance resembles a few men I've met in the halls and bistros of various nursing homes. As of yet, though, I've not heard of, let alone witnessed, any knife fights in the common rooms. The play's opening brawl is played for laughs, starting with Sampson (Lechter) biting his thumb, a kind of archaic insult spoken with great authority that just seems right for a grumpy old guy. Weapons in the fight include knives, fireplace poker, umbrella, fork, stapler, and an oxygen tank, and the participants pretty much tucker out before the Prince, aka the administrator (Justus Hammond), comes on the scene to break it up. However, because the Capulet-Montague feud now has son Capulet and daughter Montague (Tiffany Garfinkle) as the chief rivals, the way Montague and her Lady Montague (Rachel Stroud-Goodrich) begin physically fighting with Sampson, Gregory, and the other old guys in the common room is disconcerting.

Mercutio, back to us, in blue nurses outfit and Aztec head band, Benvolio in thigh-length turquoise shirt and black pants and leaning on a cane, Tybalt in open sport jacket, bright chartreuse shirt and jeans, and Romeo in suit and tie with blue shirt. In the background, a gold easy chair, the elevator, and paintings on the wall.
Mercutio (Justus Hammond, left) and Tybalt (Kim Curtis) attack each other with knives in the Verona Village's common room as Benvolio (Karen Fleming) and Romeo (Elliott Bales) watch in Unexpected Stage Company's production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Lew Lorton/Saul Pleeter, Unexpected Stage Company.

As is the context of the centerpiece fight between Tybalt and Romeo's best friend, Mercutio, a savvy certified nursing assistant played by Hammond doubling his performance as the Prince (they are kin, after all). This production benefits greatly from the casting of Hammond in both parts, for he somehow effectively translates Shakespeare's Prince of Verona into Verona Village's administrator, and he is superb as Mercutio, reading the role as that of an irreverent but indulging young man. It's sometimes difficult to understand why many Romeos would "consort" with many of the Mercutios I've seen, but it makes perfect sense here, even given the age difference between the two characters. Mercutio is the only person who has the kind of intelligence (and honesty, too) that this Romeo appreciates. The pair's wit-war scene (Act II, Scene 3 between Romeo's first tryst with Juliet and his meeting with Nurse) not only is left intact but is carried off effectively despite the archaic nature of the jokes thanks to Bales and Hammond.

But when CNA Mercutio and resident Tybalt draw knives and start fighting, we transition into the surreal. Reality of the setting knocks the conceptual reading of the play off its feet when the double murder results only in the Prince being upset that his kin has been killed and the mere banishment of Romeo: no cops, no state health officials investigating why residents and staff are carrying knives, no Fox-TV News at 5 camped outside Verona's gates. The production survives this awkward development only thanks to Bales's and Schoonover's subsequent morning lark scene and Capulet's treatment of his mother, but the production's conceptual bearing goes completely off the rails with the final act in the crypt. We certainly can accept that they would kill themselves, but the killing of Paris and the denouement of son Capulet and daughter Montague agreeing to raise statues to each other's parent carry no real consequence; they are a mere adhering to Shakespeare's last scene.

Bales's Romeo and Schoonover's Juliet, frankly, don't need Shakespeare to tell us what true love is. They've lived it far beyond and way more intensely than maybe even Shakespeare could have comprehended at the time he wrote this play.

Eric Minton
August 4, 2015

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