Theatre Review: “Romeo and Juliet” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre

Erik Hellman and Claire Aubin Fort in "Romeo and Juliet" at the IRT. Photo by Julie Curry.

On Thursday, January 28, 2010, I drove to downtown Indianapolis to see the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s special production of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  It was directed by Tim Ocel, assisted by Jonathan Courtemanche.

I cried and cried, starting early in the first act – not just because I knew what was coming but because I was experiencing this classic story in a completely new way and it was breaking me open.

As with any piece of art – especially performance art – “your mileage may vary,” but for me, this was a powerful evening at the theatre.

Personal Response #1

I have seen and heard this story, or some version of it, a gazillion times, as I’m sure you have, too.  When I was in middle school, my 7th grade class took a field trip to an architecturally significant movie theatre to see the relatively-new-at-the-time “Romeo and Juliet” film directed by Franco Zefferelli.  Everyone pounded out “A Time for Us” on their pianos that year instead of practicing their recital pieces.

Then I had to read this darn play over and over and OVER again every year until I graduated from high school.  It was as if my teachers didn’t know that William Shakespeare had written other plays.  I have also experienced a gazillion different artistic expressions that were based on the plot and themes of this one very workable play.  Just in the two years that I have been writing this blog, for example, I have seen two productions of “West Side Story” (one at Beef and Boards, the other at Civic) and a production of “bare.”  I won’t even begin to list all of the star-crossed lover novels I have read since I became a librarian who works mostly with teens.

In the past, I might have complained about having to revisit the story, but I also loved it.  I always swooned over the handsome Romeo and fantasized about being someone like the beautiful Juliet.  I.e., someone that prompts love at first sight just by being herself.  I always cheered for the open-mindedness of both Romeo and Juliet, too – cheered their being able to see past the senseless prejudices of their parents.  I knew, like Romeo and Juliet did, that they were the first people on the planet to have ever been in love like this.  I felt outrage on the young people’s behalf at the tragedy that befell them due to the inadequacies of the adults in their lives.  I always wished that somehow Romeo would, this time, WAIT a little while before he killed himself, but ultimately I always blamed his parents and Society for his death.  Other than that, I hardly paid any attention at all to the other characters.

But this time…

This time this play was not so much about a couple of young and virtuously doomed lovers, but about some fully-human adults who care deeply but impotently about a couple of headstrong, inexperienced-and-therefore-vulnerable teenagers.

In other words, this time I related to the nurse and the priest more than I related to Romeo and Juliet.

Part of that is, I know, due to the fact that I am now middle-aged, but part of it is due to the clever directing, acting, and staging of this particular adaptation.

Personal Resonance #2

Even more powerfully, though – and also a first for me – this play this time was about the fact that there will always be small-minded people who hate each other and clueless people who mean well, and they will always make life difficult for others.  So…yes, we should continue to work for justice and rightness in the world our whole lives, and yes, we should each try to develop compassion and forgiveness within ourselves and make sure, if we can, that we are not among those small-minded, clueless people, but ultimately…each of us in charge of his or her own happiness.  And none of us is perfect.

Aaggh!  I am still not explaining this very well after trying for over a week, but at this point this will have to do.  Philosophical insights and healing were not what I had expected to take away from this production at all, but I am glad they are what I received, even if I can not articulate them very well.

As a Piece of Theatre Art…

Whether or not this production “breaks you open” the way it did me, there is a lot to appreciate on aesthetic and intellectual levels.

Neither my program nor my press release seems to have the name of who adapted the script, so maybe it was a committee effort.  Whoever did it, they made good choices about what to cut – and maybe what to re-write or add?  It all sounded like Shakespeare, but there were at least two or three lines that I did not remember from reading and re-reading the play all those years in school.  On the other hand, I’m no Shakespeare scholar.  Anyway, their choices, coupled with the choices made by the director and actors to visually illuminate the bawdy humor and other meaning in William Shakespeare’s words and phrases, make this a very accessible adaptation.

Here is the story now: 

Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet see each other at a party and are immediately, mutually smitten.  Unfortunately, their families hate each other, so they have to keep their love a secret.  They marry secretly, and make love for the first and only time secretly, but in the meantime, Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, kills Romeo’s friend (and cousin?), Mercutio.  A little later, Romeo kills Tybalt. 

Romeo gets off easy by being banished instead of sentenced to death, but it doesn’t feel like a reprieve to him because it means he can’t be with Juliet.  He would rather die than not be with Juliet.  And in the meantime, Juliet’s family wants her to marry this guy named Paris.  She would rather die, too.

Juliet’s nurse and Romeo’s priest both try to help the young lovers, but through a series of wrong assumptions and too-quickly-made decisions, the lovers end up killing themselves.  Both families and sets of friends are devastated.  No one lives happily ever after.

************ 

In this production, the story takes place in 1950s America, where racism was more codified and less examined, perhaps, than it is today.  Earnest, dreamy, romantic Romeo (played by Erik Hellman) is white, or what we would call Caucasian here in 2010.  Sweet, pretty, girlish Juliet (played by Claire Aubin Fort) is black, or African-American.  They are also from different class backgrounds: Juliet’s family is conventionally successful; Romeo’s gang are the kind of people that roll their cigarettes up in the sleeves of their t-shirts.

Don’t blink or you will miss the moment that Romeo and Juliet fall in love.  For me, their “love” remained mystifying throughout the show – not unbelievable, exactly, but more about shy words and tender glances than about overwhelming physical desire and or about being soul mates.  But maybe this is part of why it was so easy for the people around them to overlook what was going on. 

In this production, Romeo apparently has no parents.  Hellman’s portrayal reminded me a little of Ponyboy in the novel The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.  His family is his two buddies: the sexy but damaged Mercutio (portrayed with breathtaking complexity by Ryan Artzberger), whose dog tags hint at an explanation for the memories that torment him, and the boyish cutie, Benvolio (Ben Tebbe), who is a reluctant but loyal rumbler.

Romeo also has a friend in the local priest, Friar Laurence.  The priest does his best to be a reliable role model and a specific help to Romeo, but ultimately he only communes with God – he is not God himself.  Robert Neal’s portrayal is endearing.

Juliet’s parents (David Alan Anderson as the fierce yet gentle Capulet and Cynthia Kaye McWilliams as the refined but warm Lady Capulet) have established a good life for themselves and their family in spite of the racism and other obstacles in their world.  They are not rich enough to be ridiculous but they are rich enough to have servants and to wear nice clothes and to throw large parties.  They are beautiful, admirable, confident…but not infallible.  They reminded me of goal-oriented parents in any affluent community who think that the force of their will alone can make their children into the “even better off” people they want them to be.

Juliet’s Nurse is played by Karen Aldridge.  If I had time, I would see this show again just to focus on her and her completely new (to me, anyway) and yet completely believable interpretation of this role.  In this production, the Nurse is not some dried-up old fool that gushes enviously and humorously over her young charge.  She is a proud, mature woman with a strong work ethic who has lost a daughter of her own.  She loves Juliet but knows she is neither her mother nor her peer.  She tries to be a friend to Juliet.  Her attempt is admirable…and heart-breaking.

Wayne T. Carr plays gorgeous Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin and Mercutio’s killer.  Like Mercutio, Tybalt, too, has demons from serving in the military, or maybe his demons are the result of racism and his military training is helping him to channel some, but not all, of his rage.  In any case, his and Mercutio’s blood-spurting knife-fight scene, choreographed by Rob Johansen, stopped my breath, it looked so real, so senseless.

And poor Paris – Juliet’s would-be, parent-approved, suitor – seems like a nice guy: polite, well-dressed, well-groomed, good-looking, and with promising financial prospects…but this play just isn’t about him.  Brandon Miller gives this “man of wax” exactly the right, too-easy-to-overlook presence.  I could, impossibly, smell the roses in his hands.

********** 

The set, designed by Gordon R. Strain, includes a truly fabulous, authentic-looking, red car from the 1950s.  It is parked under an ironically cheery billboard that is, I learned from my program, based on a famous photo by Margaret Bourke-White that appeared in Life Magazine in 1937.  I didn’t know that photograph, but the very cool car resonated with me immediately as a perfect symbol of both youthful yearning for adventure and equally youthful, but mistaken, feelings of being permanently stuck, without options.  Mercutio passes out drunk in the back seat of the car, Benvolio leans up against it to read his comic books, Romeo even stands on its roof to talk to Juliet on her raised patio lit by strings of outdoor party lights…but no one thinks to use the car in a way that truly helps them.

The lighting design, by Peter West, flawlessly takes us from back yards to church to a courtroom to a tomb and more.  Sometimes the lighting made me feel as if we were in a 1950s stylized post card: it was bright and cheery, yet surreal.

I wrote “GREAT sound” more than once in my notes.  Todd Mack Reischman is the sound designer and Gregg Coffin is the composer for this production.  I especially loved the subtle vibrations (produced by felted sticks on cymbals?) during some of the scene changes and the suspenseful music during the fight scenes.

Linda Pisano’s excellent costume designs further enhance our sense of the very specific time and place and our understanding of the characters’ personalities and backgrounds.  I especially loved the witty masks at the party and Lady Capulet’s elegant suit at the funeral.  And if I hadn’t already been weeping at the curtain call, Mercutio’s uniform would have sent me over.

Nathan Garrison is the stage manager for this show.  Richard J. Roberts was the dramaturg.  My program says that Claire Simon did the casting.  One of these days I am going to ask one of my theatre mentors just what, exactly, a casting person does.  Does the director not get to cast the show himself (or herself) in professional theatre?  I am curious.

Box Office

“Romeo and Juliet” continues at the professional Indiana Repertory Theatre through Saturday, February 27, 2010.  Please call 317-635-5252 to make reservations or visit www.irtlive.com.

And if you do go to this show, pack lots of tissues.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com for random observations pre- and post-shows on site.

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