Goodman Theatre

At the very end of the superb first act of Goodman Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet, as the young lovers kneel so Friar Lawrence can sanctify their love with matrimony, Larry Schanker’s lyrical, folkish score strikes a single shimmering dissonant note–not a harsh or mournful signal of doom, but a nervous, wondering tone that asks, “What next?”

It is the same question the audience asks itself as the lights go up for intermission. Most of us, of course, know what’s coming in the plot: that Romeo and Juliet, the children of two feuding Italian families, will see their hopes for happiness wrecked by a series of dark and deadly events, until they lie side by side, each a suicide for grief at losing the other. But knowing where the story is headed, we ask ourselves, “What next?”–can the Goodman production’s second and third acts maintain the splendid standard set in the poignantly lovely first act?

Unfortunately, it does not. Michael Maggio’s staging falls short of the grievous grandeur summoned up in the script’s ringing poetry and suggested in Maggio’s own stated emphasis on the notion of fate as a key element in the tragedy. Maggio’s directorial choices are never less than interesting; his visual presentation of Juliet in the tomb as a study in white and black–her pale skin and white gown contrasting with her dark hair and the black bag in which she carries the potion that makes her appear dead–is particularly striking. But the end result fails to move us.

This is partly because of the stage violence that propels so much of the plot. If the drama’s plunge into sorrow turns on the murder of Romeo’s friend Mercutio by Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, then we must believe Mercutio’s death (and, later, Tybalt’s at Romeo’s hand) in order to feel Romeo’s rage and its dire effects. But Steve Pickering’s overly stylized fight choreography (involving not swords but knives, meat hooks, and fists and feet) is unconvincing and on some occasions outright laughable.

But the bulk of the problem is simply the production’s overall lightness of tone, set by director Maggio and embodied, inevitably, by the actress playing Juliet, Phoebe Cates. The airiness and buoyancy that make the play’s first act so charming prevent the drama from deepening later on. Cates’s girlish loveliness–by turns grave and gawky, ardent and awkward–never ripens to match Juliet’s tragedy. It’s nearly impossible to find an actress who can handle both halves of Romeo and Juliet, and Maggio didn’t succeed.

But in its first half, Maggio’s production is vivid, clear, and exhilarating. It is one of those rare productions in which virtually everything works together; the acting, sets, lighting, and staging are integrated to create a unified whole that is stimulating artistically and emotionally. Having set the action in a Little Italy of 1919–a perfect time period, recognizably contemporary yet old-fashioned enough to support the play’s moral assumptions–Maggio and his company bring that setting to life with countless details big and small: the vendors’ pushcarts, the baseball Romeo tosses to his friend as he speaks of his passion, the fireworks that enliven the Capulets’ ball (here a street festival), and especially Michael Merritt’s set of plain wood-frame houses, which moves on a turntable to create cramped inner-city mazes of streets and alleys, always angular and divided until the beautiful last scene of act one. There, in Friar Lawrence’s chapel, we see for the first time an unbroken wall across the stage, with a gigantic window looking down on the marriage ceremony like the eye of God.

Maggio’s approach to the text, similarly, is swift and natural. The actors, speaking American English without Italian accents–their temperaments suggest their ethnicity well enough–engage the text with clarity and intelligence; what this Romeo and Juliet lacks in poetic power it makes up in realness and comprehensibility. Interestingly, nuances in the text that are easily lost in traditional British-style Shakespearean delivery emerge strongly here. Most notable in the romantic first act, in which Romeo and Juliet meet, court, and marry, are the sharply contrasting views the characters take on love, sex, and marriage. We’re accustomed to thinking of Romeo and Juliet’s love as the antithesis of their families’ bitter feud; but it’s also the antithesis of the coarse lustiness of the other characters. While most of the men are cracking lewd puns on “maidenhead” and “prick,” Romeo is finding in his love for Juliet a new level of feeling that both unites and transcends flesh and spirit. And the frank, businesslike approach William J. Norris takes to the role of Juliet’s father–playing him not as an aristocrat but as a petit-bourgeois businessman–drives home the play’s paradoxical portrait of marriage: as unnatural contract when Capulet tries to force Juliet to marry Paris, and as holy rite when Romeo weds Juliet in secret; it is the socially approved betrothal of Juliet to Paris that is illicit and immoral, not her elopement with Romeo.

Phoebe Cates’s physical beauty is matched with a quality of inherent wisdom that makes her quite interesting to watch; her big love scene on the balcony, opposite Michael Cerveris’s rashly energetic Romeo, is funny and poignant and even a little scary. (Again, Merritt’s set–here the back porch of a two-flat–adds immeasurably to the work of actors and director.)

Of the other principal players, the standout by far is Peggy Roeder as the Nurse; of all the cast, only Roeder is able to bridge the gap between the giddy light-headedness of the first act and the overwhelming sorrow of the climax. Steve Pickering is forceful as Mercutio, played here as a crippled and embittered war veteran; Mike Nussbaum is a gentle, slightly dithery Friar Lawrence, and John Reeger an appropriately powerful Prince of Verona (here a pin-striped don wielding authority over an immigrant enclave). Adding greatly to the texture of the production are some of Chicago’s best actors, many familiar from small off-Loop theaters, in numerous background roles: among them, Corinne Lyon, Larry Brandenburg, David Studwell, Kristine Thatcher, Louis DiCrescenzo, Tom Keeney, Tom Zanarini, Ernest Perry Jr., Gary Brichetto, and Larry Russo (playing Paris not unlike the way he played Antonio in Oak Park Festival Theatre’s Merchant of Venice last summer–but oh so much more clearly).

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, with its succession of pastels against a huge plain cyclorama, accents the visual simplicity (achieved through enormous technical complexity) of Merritt’s sets; so do Nan Cibula’s well-thought-out costumes. Rob Milburn’s sound design is first-rate–the actors’ voices are marvelously clear throughout the Goodman’s large auditorium–and Larry Schanker’s flavorful music for mandolin and accordion is lovely as well as dramatically on target. Though it falters as tragedy, Maggio’s Romeo and Juliet is a beautifully told love story and an intelligent, articulate rendering of an always fresh and vivid masterpiece.

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