R & J

Apple Tree Theatre

Romeo and Juliet Are Alive and Well and Living in Maple Bend

Griffin Theatre Company

By Justin Hayford

The impulse to update Shakespeare is not only admirable–it’s necessary if you want to produce something by the greatest playwright in the English language that’s not a museum piece or costume parade. That doesn’t mean you have to set Hamlet in outer space or do A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an episode of The Twilight Zone; a tights-and-toga Julius Caesar can be perfectly contemporary if the actors understand it and have the technical skills to communicate that understanding. But not every hip, revisionary staging of Shakespeare speaks to our current social, cultural, and political selves–and if it doesn’t, it can do no better than entertain, and then only under the best of circumstances.

Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespeare play most often assigned to American high school students, seems ripe for contemporizing given our youth-mad culture. A torrid, tortured love affair between teenagers complete with uptight, disapproving adults and the occasional murder sounds like half the lineup this season on the WB. Two current productions–Chicago playwright William Massolia’s charming children’s-theater work Romeo and Juliet Are Alive and Well and Living in Maple Bend, and New York director Joe Calarco’s hyperadolescent off-Broadway transplant R & J–take Shakespeare’s saga of star-crossed love into the realm of contemporary teendom. But paradoxically Massolia’s lighthearted, lampoonish romp is closer to something Shakespeare might have recognized as truthful than Calarco’s brooding, testosterone-infused ordeal.

Neither Massolia nor Calarco ends up shedding much light on the original, however. Massolia doesn’t want to, but Calarco does. He writes in a lengthy program note that Romeo and Juliet is too often buried under pretty costumes and bloodless performances. Instead, he says, it should be about “sex, lust, death, violence, betrayal, murder and teen suicide” (no mention of language, intellect, poetry, or even a story line). “We’ve tried to do what Shakespeare did,” he continues. “We’ve tried to give the play to you with nothing else to get in the way.” To that end he invents a rather strained framing device: four repressed prep school boys who spend their days conjugating Latin verbs like robots stumble upon a copy of Romeo and Juliet, start reading it aloud, and discover to their tittering delight that the Bard gives them hard-ons. They proceed to act out the entire play for their own amusement, after miraculously memorizing all the lines and assigning all the parts in 30 seconds, indulging their every libidinal impulse.

The idea is to make the play immediate and passionate. And of course the concept sets the scene for a marketing bonanza: four hot guys acting semigay–emphasis on the “semi”–all evening. (Plausible deniability has saturated the preshow press: “I didn’t want it to be about homoeroticism,” Calarco told the Sun-Times, apparently before he’d cast the two leading hunks and devised a number of make-out sessions for them.) It also gives the director and cast the opportunity for frequent simulated hormonal outbursts onstage of the kind audiences and critics regularly mistake for acting. It is the rare character in this production who can converse without hissing, moaning, growling, pleading desperately, rolling about, hyperventilating, or tugging at a large piece of red fabric–all the while attempting to speak Elizabethan verse.

Calarco and his randy band are certainly adept at the task they’ve set themselves. The scenes fly by, the stage pictures are smart, the performances are precise, and the manufactured emotions are so forceful you might almost believe they were real. But after 20 minutes you’ve seen every gesture, heard every vocal inflection, and witnessed every permutation of red fabric you’re going to. For the remaining two hours the cast can do little but maintain a frenzied enthusiasm, hoping we won’t notice that they’re repeating themselves.

The prep school frame may be good for marketing but it sends the production into a logical tailspin. If the actors are just boarding school boys in an impromptu run-through, where does the occasional sound effect or voice-over come from, and why do the boys treat these interruptions as if they were perfectly normal? If they’ve memorized the entire play, why do they need a script for the marriage scene? And why are two of the boys so opposed to this marriage scene that they do everything in their power to keep the script from the boys playing Romeo and Juliet? Perhaps the gravity of marriage has suddenly drained the wild oats right out of them, but nothing in the play has set this up. And all four end the scene holding hands in a circle professing marriage vows, making the previous tumult seem an irrelevant diversion.

But the larger inconsistency–the one that’s a problem in many updated Shakespeare productions–is how irreconcilable the overemotional acting is with Shakespeare’s language. If Juliet is writhing around on the floor swooning over Romeo, how can s/he possibly have the presence of mind to say “Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night, / Give me my Romeo, and, when I shall die, / Take him and cut him out in little stars, / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night, / And pay no worship to the garish sun”? The sophistication of Shakespeare’s imagery suggests an intricate underlying thought process–or in any case something more than emotional diarrhea. In this production, however, it seems the answer to most textual difficulties is “Get worked up and get through it.” What makes Shakespeare exciting is not just sex, lust, death, violence, betrayal, murder, and teen suicide but the extraordinary way his characters think through these issues.

Like so many directors tackling Shakespeare, Calarco pushes his actors to stay in real psychological time even though verse drama like this takes place in a kind of lyric time, which is no less immediate for being suspended. An actor can’t credibly maintain a spurt of passion through 30 lines of complicated verse; he ends up plowing through the passage hoping to get out the other end before his passion runs out. Some kind of lyrical suspension or poetic license is necessary to make all the talking ring true.

The effort to make everything “real” in this typically American production simply backfires. Calarco’s protestations to the contrary, everything gets in the way of the play. The story disappears, and we’re left with an awful lot of well-staged noise.

Griffin Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet Are Alive and Well and Living in Maple Bend couldn’t be more unlike R & J in both style and overall effect. Director Richard Barletta brings a light touch and an unsentimental hokiness to Massolia’s goofy tale of middle school romance. Jimmy, the school’s biggest nerd, has a crush on perky Abigail, so his scheming best friend, Marko, gets Jimmy cast as Romeo opposite Abigail’s Juliet. That’s about all the plot Massolia bothers with, devoting the rest of the play to a cartoonish yet sympathetic portrayal of first love–a portrayal so ridiculous and lovely that in a mere hour you’ve sighed away years of cynicism. Unlike Calarco’s humorless, supercharged pinup boys, Barletta’s unstylish cast (this is middle school, after all) revel in foolishness. At some point every scene degenerates into inane bickering: “You’re stupid.” “No, you’re stupid.” And every character is a clown, from the thuggish jock who turns into a simpering sissy at the slightest threat of violence to the lovesick girl who does nothing but stare at the boy who hates her to the tyrannical principal who thinks the school play is as important as anything by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The story of Abigail and Jimmy contains brief echoes of Romeo and Juliet; Abigail’s chief counselor in love, for example, is the school nurse. And as a finale we watch the kids put on the worst production of Romeo and Juliet imaginable. But for the most part Shakespeare’s play has been pushed firmly into the background, as Massolia focuses on the angst of youthful crushes. And luckily Barletta has assembled a smart group of actors who know how to give Massolia’s caricatures human hearts.

Setting the standard is Tiffany Scott as Abigail, turning in a performance of enormous ingenuity and precision: she scampers about the stage with such girlish enthusiasm you’d swear she was 14 rather than a former Northwestern University grad student. Like many of her fellow cast members she captures the hair-trigger feelings of adolescents, to whom everything is a crisis and a tiny crush is everlasting love. She’s even able to utter the line “Love is really hard” with such conviction and naivete that you can’t help but guffaw through a lump in your throat. You may stare at the guys in R & J and think “No one in real life acts like that,” but you’ll see in Scott’s performance every precocious seventh-grader you’ve ever known.

This show arguably has nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet. But the Griffin folks manage to convey a touching human comedy through the most artificial, trumped-up of stories. And of that Shakespeare would be proud.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Metzger.