You want to know something? William Shakespeare was a master playwright. That's the immediate observation to be made after seeing Romeo and Juliet at the Yale Repertory Theatre, directed by Shana Cooper, a Yale School of Drama grad, with a cast featuring many second and third year actors from the School, as well as a few notable former students. In other words, it’s Old Home Week at the Yale Rep, and nothing says, “Old Home” like a return to a venerable classic by our tongue’s most widely lauded, taught, and re-enacted playwright. The greatest success of Cooper's vision for this production is that it makes one marvel at how Old Bill manages to mix violence (feuding families that, in this modern dress and highly active version—credit Fight Director Rick Sordelet—recall gangland battles, mob hostilities, and, of course, The Sharks and The Jets from West Side Story, which was a variation on R&J to begin with), hilarity (The Nurse is always funny, and Cynthia Mace makes the most of it, adding plenty of Yenta charm, but does anyone talk about how funny Balthasar is? After seeing Blake Segal in the role, you will.), death (five corpses by the end—the death-begat-death structure is well-known, but it seems to me that the death of Countee Paris (Ben Horner, dutiful in a thankless role) isn’t always played, though here it is, and it gives more tooth to Romeo, sometimes seen as a fey ladies’ man, to see him kill a member of each of the other leading families), generational tensions, familial difficulties (the Capulets are given much presence, thanks to Christina Rouner’s affecting portrayal as Juliet’s mother, svelte as hell in a black funeral dress, mixing comic touches and frenetic, modern-mother-at-her-wits’-end gestures with stormy mourning over her possum-playing daughter, and Andy Murray, blunt and muscular, with a Jason Statham look and shades of an East End delivery, as he berates Tybalt (Marcus Henderson, dangerous and seething) as an upstart, and later his daughter for her contrary ways, underscoring that there’s something rotten in the house of Capulet), flights of fancy (boy, that Mercutio (John Patrick Doherty) can talk!, and here he’s as gay as you probably always assumed he was, but Michael Jackson didn’t grab his own crotch as often as Doherty thrusts his), jokes (most coming from Mercutio—to say nothing of some comic butt baring), poetic musings (Friar Laurence (Henry Stram) in a lovely little soliloquy that slows everything down just when it needs to—consummate craftsman, our Will), the best romantic badinage ever written (and placed in the mouths of teens), and all the tragic baggage of “star-cross’d lovers” (a hoary enough conceit even in The Bard’s day), and gets away with it—more, establishes a bar that has never been bettered.
So what about those lovers, eh? I can’t think of Romeo without recalling the Shakespearean actor in a Monty Python skit who recalled he was “frightfully awkward with all that happy prancing” the role requires. Our Romeo (Joseph Parks) is anything but awkward, and prance he does. He also swings from bars and wears an ape costume (with sneakers). In fact, one of the pleasures of this production is watching Parks own the stage; his is a tight, sinewy Romeo, in physical presence, but his delivery has few nuances—it’s all exhortatory cadences, making every speech a song in the same key. I found myself longing for a more varied music. And that extends also to his lady love, Juliet (Irene Sofia Lucio), though for a different reason. Lucio is great as the winsome teen of the first half—she acts the age (not yet fourteen) that Juliet is supposed to be—and rises to splendor in Juliet’s long riff on the word “banished,” managing to make Will’s asides-within-asides jump nimbly to the rising despair she feels. But, as Hamlet says, “something too much of this.” I couldn’t help feeling that this Juliet was out of touch with the world she inhabited—a shambles of warring families and preening coxcombs, where even her Man of the Hour kills in haste and repents at leisure, and quits her bed like the Captain of the Team who just scored the winning goal and has to hit the showers. I found myself longing for the tones of today’s teen queen, more deadpan irony, less fluttery gush.
Finally, as is usually the case at the Rep, the technical stuff is all great: Costume Designer Leon Dobkowski has fun, so you can too; the set (Po-Lin Li) and lighting (Laura J. Eckelman) enhance all that verbal poetry with some of the visual kind: the figures lurking in the shadows were a nice touch, but even better was the odd, background mound, and the upper story gave a sense of a proscenium-within-the-proscenium, especially when that big bed was center stage; and Composer Gina Leishman’s music added commentary—the first half Curtain sounded like a Twin Peaks-style Soap score, archly suggesting bathos and something sinister to come.
The production will be enacted for area high school students through the WILL POWER! program, and should go over well with a young adult audience—for what teen hasn’t envisioned his or her own death as the “serves ‘em right” payback to overbearing parents? As Aristotle would say, that’s catharsis, folks!
The Yale Repertory Theatre presents William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Directed by Shana Cooper
March 11 to April 2, 2011