2/1/2020 ROMEO AND JULIET New American Shakespeare Tavern
Two houses, both alike in dignity,
At Shakespeare Tavern, where we watch the play,
From year to year to celebrate the day
St. Valentine is honored and obeyed,
Is staged with no ironic purpose hid
(For surely ‘tis an irony that death
Ensues from such a passion young,
And love and death describe an arc that bears
No ‘semblance to the Hallmark platitudes
That seem to foul this day too much for some).
Confession time. I was so disappointed with the Tavern’s 2012 staging of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that I’ve consciously avoided it every year since (it is and no doubt always will be a February tradition for the Tavern to – unironically – stage this cautionary love story for Valentine’s Day). Maybe I’m getting older and less inclined to nitpick, but I found this year’s staging (directed by the always reliable Andrew Houchins) a moving, even funny excursion into the passions and excesses and tragedies (real and imagined) that inevitably come with teenage hormones running amok.
I don’t imagine many of you need a plot recap but let me see if I can craft one that’s readable (and spoiler-free). We are in fair Verona, home of the feuding Montagues and Capulets, essentially the Jets and Sharks of the town. Both families are filled with cousins and retainers and swordsmen, all seemingly wallowing in the fire that is teen-hormone-fueled anger and resentment, all spoiling for a brawl. But the Prince is bound and determined to keep order, to keep the “Fair” forever attached to the name “Verona,” rather than “Verona, Town of Collateral Damages.”
The only son and heir of Lord Montague, however, is more interested in the Lady Rosaline than swordplay, much to the disappointment of his rowdy cousins and friends. But, as the song says, “That’s Amore!” Still, he allows himself to be drawn into a plot to “crash” a party being thrown by the Capulets, where he meets a winsome young lady who drives all thoughts of Rosaline from his mind. Meet Juliet, only daughter of Lord Capulet. For the record, Juliet is “not yet fourteen” and Romeo is barely older.
What can possibly go wrong?
What first struck me about this particular production is how well the youth and energy of the opposing “gangs” is played. As the leads, Joshua Goodridge and Antonia LaChé are giddy and aggravating and extreme – everything is the highest tragedy or the lowest agony; they are like a pair of Dante-esque spirits, helplessly blown hither and yon by whatever passion is gripping them at the moment. Sadness comes with wails and anger with the highest of dudgeons. Passions and lust color every word, every gesture, every expression, every encounter. They know (and do not know) everything they need to know about each other – about everything in fact – even at their first encounter (which, of course, Shakespeare constructed as a perfect 14-line sonnet).
As their friends and relations, the ensemble strut and preen like middle school jocks at a party, Filled with the anger and energy that only the young can muster, they are the metaphorical matter and anti-matter that must inevitably explode in mutual annihilation if ever they come in contact. Which, of course, it is inevitable they do. And yet, their internal connections are vital – each gang is devoted to their “team,” to the family that gave them life (or employment) and each will fight to the death to protect their fellows. The bravado and camaraderie of this cast pours from the stage like so much ale from a recently tapped cask.
What also struck me is how funny a lot of this play is, The first half is directed and staged as a full blown Shakespearean comedy, with wry asides to the audience, rowdy and bawdy jokes underscored and emphasized. Gina Rickicki as the nurse, Nicholas Faircloth as the dim(ish) servant Peter (*), and (understudy) Tony Brown as Friar Lawrence all give brilliantly comic performance that keep the action light and spirited, even as post-intermission events conspire to bring the whole thing crashing down. This approach really helps us to invest in these characters and their (mis)fortunes and makes their fates even more tragic and moving.
A bit of gender-blind casting also helps pique my interest in a story I have perhaps seen far too often. Kristen Storla as Mercutio and Mary Ruth Ralston as Tybalt are very good at making too-much-testosterone an oxymoron, not attempting to hide the fact that they are women mocking toxic masculinity. Their sword fight is downright spectacular (both have fight choreography credits in their past). The give those of us who like to “read too much” into directorial and staging choices plenty of grist to start a “let’s talk 2020 gender roles” discussion here.
Still, it’s the performances of Ms. LaChé and Mr. Goodridge who truly make this story soar. I was totally convinced of their youth and totally spellbound by their ease with the language, making it seem natural and understandable. As usual with any large-cast production at the tavern, a few smaller roles came across as just-off-book monotonous and high-school recitation bland, but, I daresay, the excellence of the leads makes the “weak spots” in the cast even more noticeable, (For the record, it may not be such a good idea to have a “guest performer” read the prologue. Untrained and unmemorized readings from a printed page rarely draw us into the world of Shakespeare’s language.)
Anyway, let me close with my usual (heavily-edited) Prologue pastiche:
And so the Shakespeare Tavern once again
Has taken us on yet another trek
To fair Verona, where our story lies.
The show’s still here, and will no doubt return,
So if you miss this year’s most mem’rable stroll
Into the passage of this death-mark’d love,
Do not despair or wallow in regret.
It will be back next year again.
And that light taste of rue that holds your heart?
My strained, uncivil words shall hope to mend.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #ShakespeareTavernR&J)