12 Winters Blog

A truly delightful Romeo and Juliet

Posted in July 2011 by Ted Morrissey on July 29, 2011

Second only to Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet is the Shakespeare play I’ve seen staged most — only because the famous love story is staged so frequently — and there’s no question that the production I saw last evening at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington, Illinois, was by the far the most imaginative (while staying true to the text) and most emotionally engaging I’ve experienced. Directed by Doug Finlayson, the Festival production was truly delightful.

As one would expect, the portrayals of the title characters (played by Dylan Paul and Laura Rook) were at the heart (ha) of the production’s success — and I want to speak to these portrayals in some detail in a moment — but Finlayson took a number of creative risks in his treatment of what could be the best-known and most-read of Shakespeare’s plays (I’m basing my statement on the fact that so many high school freshmen read the play), and every roll of the creative dice was a winner. Moreover, judging from audience reactions, I know I’m not alone in labeling the production a triumph.

In the interest of time and reader attention span, I won’t try to speak to every risky choice made in the Festival production, but I do want to underscore a few. One was in the production’s costuming (designed by Linda Pisano). Often directors set Shakespeare plays in more contemporary settings (for example, a couple of years ago I saw another marvelous production of Romeo and Juliet, by the famed Acting Company, situated in 1920s Mississippi), and the costuming of course is instrumental in communicating and selling that setting choice. For the Festival production, however, the costuming was all over the map — with some characters dressing in Renaissance-style wardrobe, others looking more like extras in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and still others appearing as if they’d just come from shooting a Gap commercial, in jeans and trendy jackets … to name just a few apparent influences, and these influences were often mixed together for individual costumes.

I’ve seen some productions of Romeo and Juliet in which the costuming was designed to delineate between the feuding Capulets and Montagues, almost as if they were sports teams wearing home and away colors; but the costuming in the Festival production was no help whatsoever in figuring out family loyalties — especially when the fight choreographer (D. C. Wright) had the combatants moving in intersecting chaotic circles, thus further confusing the audience as to who was opposing who, especially early in the production.

The “confusion” of costumes — mixing and matching across centuries and geographies — and the chaotic fight scenes worked to emphasize the absurdity of the feud in the first place.  That is to say, even a careful perusal yields a sameness about the Capulets and Montagues — any differences which were so profound that they should result in a bloodfeud either never existed or have long since disappeared. This point is emphasized in the play’s final scene, in the Capulet vault, when the Prince asks, “Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague, / See what a scourge is laid upon your hate …” (5.3.290-91). In other words, here, among these dead, there appear no family distinctions whatsoever.

Another artistic risk in the play is the use of contemporary top-40 music interspersed with more traditional compositions — perhaps most notably Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” when Romeo and Juliet first meet and instantly fall in love at the Capulet masquerade ball. In fact, the Katy Perry song plays for the first time as the teenagers ascend a platform at the front of the stage, creating an almost cinematic (or TV) effect of focusing the audience’s attention on the pair to the exclusion of everything else happening on stage, the way that a framing close-up would work on the screen, silver or plasma.

Let’s talk about the portrayals of the leads for a moment. Both young actors, Dylan Paul and Laura Rook, are quite wonderful as they embrace the youthfulness and immaturity of the title characters. After all, we often forget that Juliet is only thirteen and Romeo not much older, fifteen or sixteen. As such, the famous garden scene is touching and romantic, but also very funny as the characters’ awkwardness is underscored in a way I haven’t seen before — giving a new dimension to a scene that is arguably the most famous in all of literature.

By far, though, the most interesting and complex character in the play is Juliet — and with whom the most risk is taken in the Festival production. She is played as downright childish in the beginning, tomboyishly roughhousing with her little brother and cousins, carrying around a stuffed animal (a lion — symbol of power, especially masculine power, even though it’s the lionesses who hunt and supply food to the pride). When Juliet enters the masquerade ball, her status as thirteen-year-old beams forth thanks to her costume, and the way the actor carries herself of course. Juliet wears a colorful and fun dress  that ends above the knee, along with equally colorful butterfly wings. We at first see her from only the waist up, and when she walks into full view, we see that she has “topped off” her ensemble with pink high-top Chucks — a marvelous touch that takes the audience completely by surprise. She could be any adorable thirteen-year-old going to a junior high Halloween party.

In the famous garden scene, Juliet carries her stuffed lion toy onto the balcony. She is wearing a cloak and hood of pale green. After Romeo, awkwardly, makes his presence known, Juliet ultimately loses the toy and cloak, thus revealing an alluring bare-shouldered nightgown beneath. It seems that in this brief scene Juliet transforms from a toy-carrying tomboy to a sensual young woman. This transformation is also communicated via the butterfly emblem that we associate with Juliet throughout. Besides her butterfly costume, she wears a small butterfly barrette in her hair in several scenes, and there is a large cotton sheet with a picture of a butterfly that serves several purposes: banner, bridal bedsheet, and ultimately funeral shroud. The butterfly is appropriately juvenile (how many teenage girls festoon their lockers, notebooks, bedrooms, and body parts! with butterflies?), but it also represents dramatic transformation in nature, maturing from caterpillar to butterfly, or from girl- to womanhood. It’s also worth noting that Juliet refers to Romeo, in 3.2, as “[s]ole monarch of the universal earth” (94, my emphasis), perhaps stressing, in the context of the Festival production, the kindredness of the newlyweds.

I was especially delighted that the Festival was doing Romeo and Juliet this year because the play is one of several subtexts I tinker with in my recently completed novel, “An Untimely Frost” — the title of which is taken from 4.4 when Capulet says of his daughter (prematurely) that “Death lies on her like an untimely frost” (55). In a later chapter in my novel, the protagonist attends an oddball production of Romeo and Juliet, so I spent several weeks studying the play to write that chapter in particular.

All in all, it was a typically terrific evening at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (in spite of the heat and humidity), where I enjoyed a production of The Winter’s Tale just last Saturday.

tedmorrissey.com

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