November 16, 2010

Romeo and Juliet's stellar cast captures Shakespeare's subtleties

It seems these days that Romeo and Juliet has become too popular for its own good. Whereas we exalt Shakespeare’s late tragedies of perturbed noble statesmen—Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear—we too often write off Romeo and Juliet as one of Shakespeare’s early attempts at tragedy, lacking the depth of his mature genius. We assume instead that the play’s lasting success is a result of its melodrama, its depiction of enduring love in the face of a fractious, prejudiced society that has lived on in everything from West Side Story to two highly lauded ballet adaptations by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.

I invite all such critics to come to Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to see a heartfelt and wonderfully executed production of Romeo and Juliet. Here, one is struck most of all by the special power of what is, at least by the dramatic standards of Shakespeare’s day, a story about ordinary people. They are less exalted than kings and queens, yet they possess the uncommon wit and eloquence of every Shakespearean character. For really, this play appears just as beautifully written as the late tragedies.

Australian director Gale Edwards, with credits at nearly all of the world’s major Shakespeare venues, has interpreted Romeo and Juliet just as it should be interpreted. She was also greatly aided by the production’s nearly flawless cohort of actors. Our young lovers—the excellent Jeff Lillico (Romeo) and Joy Farmer-Clary (Juliet)—bring their characters’ introverted dispositions (as found in many of Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines) into full expression not in spite of their youthful vigor and haste, which becomes rashness when left unchecked by temperance and prudence. We must remember that Juliet is only just approaching 14, and must express all the brightness and musings of a girl just blossoming into the passions of her adolescence, which Joy Farmer-Clary expresses well.

It is refreshing to hear the oft-popularized lines from the balcony scene, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo…,” said with the exasperation implied in the speech’s remaining lines: “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo,” of the house of Montague, for all would be well “if you simply had some other name.”

We must also remember that Romeo, as a tragic hero possessing the virtues of faithfulness, humanity, and compassion, also possesses the tragic flaws of intemperance and imprudence. Jeff Lillico has grasped both aspects of his character very well. And one cannot help wishing that Romeo and Juliet might have heeded Friar Laurence’s call to “love moderately.”

Throughout the production, it feels that, with their new insight gleaned from falling in love with a member of their rival family, the lovers might have slowly weaned their families away from their blind, inveterate hate to allow for a marriage and unite the houses peacefully. Instead, Friar Laurence—perfectly executed by David Lively—is quite often the only voice of reason in this tragedy of well-intentioned youth, felled by too much haste, or, in the friars’ words, “virtue itself turned vice when misapplied.”

The shriek of “Do you bite your thumb at us sir,” that opens the shortened first scene of the play, said after half a dozen metal shop-window coverings are slammed to the floor and the Capulets and Montagues begin their first violent skirmishes, is initial cause for concern that Edwards may be over-directing. Certainly not all of Mercutio’s lines have to be interpreted sexually, and in such a physical manner. There is a risk here that Mercutio may appear false and overly stylized. But Ariel Shafir is too good an actor to allow for that, and remains deeply sympathetic, even in absurdity.

The spectator also benefits from very sensitive performances by Ora Jones as Juliet’s nurse and Judy Blue as Lady Capulet. The dramatic irony in Act 1, Scene III—our first picture of Juliet—is brought to perfection, as the seemingly harmless tale of the day Juliet was weaned, colorfully told by Ms. Jones, is given deep foreboding by the stern and unmoved Lady Capulet, pacing about the bedstead. Tom McElory (Montague), and John Judd (Capulet) also give fine performances; Zack Appelman is suitably despicable as Tybalt.

However, what I perhaps found most satisfying in this production was the presence of such a good collection of young stage actors, such as one too seldom finds in professional theater these days. Most notably, the actors could successfully combine their youthful zeal with great pathos and subtlety of expression. One is tempted to conclude—and really, after two-and-a-half hours of being utterly cast under a spell by Shakespeare’s dialogue, I really must conclude (not to say I’ve never seen a forgettable portrayal of one of Shakespeare’s young heroes)—that it is the ennobling power of the great playwright’s language, and the thoughts therein contained, that often bring out the very best in young stage actors.