Romeo & Juliet should not be a difficult play to present…but it is. Remarkably difficult. It is not that the plot is too convoluted; Hamlet, in its original form, is much more confusing. It is not that the language is an insurmountable barrier; Henry V is richer in the lofty phrases of Elizabethan English. It is not even that it is a tragedy of mythological proportions; MacBeth does a better job of exploring the tragic flaws that drive men and women to acts of desperation.
So what makes Romeo & Juliet so troublesome? It is said that ‘familiarity breeds contempt,’ and Romeo & Juliet is arguably the Bard’s most familiar work. From its Greek myth antecedent, to endless contemporary re-workings (West Side Story, Shakespeare In Love), the story of star-crossed lovers who would rather end it all than face life apart has been celebrated in song, on the stage, and on the silver screen. In order to somehow overcome the audience’s bored familiarity with the story, a company performing Romeo & Juliet must provide imaginative staging, meticulous attention to detail, and exquisite acting. The Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s recent version of the play succeeds in two and a half of those three categories.
The story line faithfully interprets Shakespeare’s original work. There is a blood-feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. Young Romeo Montague attends a masquerade at the Capulet’s estate, spies the lovely Juliet Capulet, and falls desperately in love. The couple secretly marries, Romeo is involved in street fight where he kills Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, and he is subsequently banished for life. Lord Capulet contracts Juliet’s marriage to the County Paris, Juliet conspires with the Friar Laurence to fake her own death, in order to avoid the bigamous marriage, and to ultimately be reunited with Romeo. Romeo doesn’t get the word of the plan in time, and instead hears that Juliet is dead. He rushes back to the tomb, fights and kills Paris (the one honorable, innocent man in the whole play) and then takes his own life. Juliet awakes moments later to find Romeo dead and kills herself. Lords Montague and Capulet reconcile their grievances over the dead bodies of their children.
Director David Grapes sets the play in an undisclosed future, giving Costume Designer, Lane Fragomeli and Scenic Designer, Gary Hoff license to let their imaginations run rampant. The resulting set and costume design, a cross between DeLaurentis’s Dune and Disney’s Alice In Wonderland, is flamboyant, extravagant, and jaw-droppingly cool. The pseudo-Roman warrior battle dress works marvelously for the men, but the six-inch high stacks and headdresses that were from two feet high to two feet wide appeared a bit cumbersome for the women.
The Rep’s version of Romeo & Juliet gets full marks for imaginative staging and attention to detail. The performances of the actors were uneven, however, as the supporting cast often out-shined the leads. Mark Cabus played Romeo’s friend Mercutio with gleeful bawdiness, and Todd Denning imbued the hot-headed Tybalt with a brooding hatred that was almost palpable. It was a pity that both characters were killed off in the first act. Local favorite, Nan Gurley, provided comic relief as the Nurse and Henry Haggard’s portrayal of Friar Laurence was a study in ecclesiastical dignity. Sarah Bloom (Juliet) and Jo Benincasa (Romeo), while performing adequately, never made the leap to truly connect with their characters. Instead I never forget that these were merely actors.
Still, Romeo & Juliet a remarkable piece of theatre. Far from being highbrow entertainment, Romeo & Juliet, like all of Shakespeare’s plays, was written for the common man, and as such it contains a strong sprinkling of bawdy humor and sexual innuendo. Parents may want to consider whether their younger children should attend.
If it is not the best of the Bard’s plays, it is certainly the popular. Romeo & Juliet is presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre at TPAC’s Polk Theatre October 25 – November 11, 2000.