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A Noble Attempt at Bridging the Great Divide Hot

Denise Battista
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Written by Denise Battista     July 07, 2007    
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A Noble Attempt at Bridging the Great Divide

Photos: Charles Erickson and Jenny Graham

  • Romeo & Juliet
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Oregon Shakespeare Festival
  • June 7 - October 5, 2007
Acting 5
Costumes 4
Sets 4
Overall 4

Romeo and Juliet begins at their end. Within the first six lines of the play, we learn that our crossed stars will die. This stage is set accordingly. A dark wooden stage, whose center looks as though it’s been sprayed with golden paint, carries two dark wooden caskets, side by side, trimmed in gold. The entire cast speaks the Chorus’ opening lines, led by the elders and followed by the youth. As the caskets lower and this opening sonnet comes to an end, the final statement is that of peace, held high on the hand of one of the young actors.

Director Bill Rauch (AKA OSF’s incoming Artistic Director 2008) definitely makes some statements in this production. Scenic Designer Christopher Acebo’s set claims a sort of modern simplicity; I rather see layers of discussion. Juliet’s balcony resides up center, and sits atop a wall of bars, with barred doors left and right, leading one to believe that like Denmark, this Verona’s a prison. The most imposing piece on this stage is a large golden cross, just off center stage right, reaching to Shakespeare’s “heavens,” and barring the right side of Juliet’s balcony. Except for the offset of this imposing cross, right stage mirrors left. This design certainly highlights Rauch’s vision of sameness in the play, while offsetting the imposed differences that result in tragedy. Rauch focuses on the theme of old versus new, placing two different time periods on the stage at the same time. The older generation is rooted in the Italian Renaissance, while the younger is planted in 2007, wearing private school, lacrosse, and soccer uniforms for much of the play.

This theme of old versus new follows the recurrence of antithesis in this play – antitheses with a pointed emphasis on love versus hate, light versus darkness, limitations versus boundlessness, and the quick and slow passage of time, to name a few. Rauch, and Costume Designer Shigeru Yaji, highlights the lack of communication and the generational gap in this play through costume.

“It revealed new things in the play to me to focus on the generation gap. How do we pass on hatred? We are not born with feuds. Feuds are learned behavior, whether they are in Renaissance Italy, in urban American neighborhoods, in the Middle East, wherever. We learn to hate each other. How do we pass on hatred to future generations? Thinking about a production that might span from a Renaissance setting to a contemporary setting really got my brain going. A lot of the drama in the play is that the Capulet and Montague families are perfectly matched. There’s no reason why these two kids, Romeo and Juliet, shouldn’t be together. They seem like they should be a perfect fit, except for this feud. This production will be about the sameness of the families.” —Rauch

“In terms of fashion or trend the generation gap is so clear in almost every time period. The children dismiss whatever the parents are wearing. They don’t care. They’re not interested, but they coexist…They don’t necessarily communicate; they coexist. In this production we are just extending that gap.”—Yaji

I find it difficult to grasp what Yaji is trying to enforce, as the youth are in uniform. Other than Romeo and Juliet who break from their uniforms and wear more contemporary “street clothes” for much of the play, and except for Mercutio, who has a rebellious, leather-clad, tattoo-marked style of his own, they wear school and sport uniforms throughout the play, granted with their own flair here and there. These uniforms are imposed by an adult society. The only instance in which Rauch and Yaji’s vision makes sense is during the masquerade, when Romeo and his boys show up wearing what seems to be Italian Renaissance garb, until they put on their superhero masks, with Mercutio donning the apropos Batman hood. Perhaps better would be to follow Mercutio’s renegade fashion, but this would not serve to emphasize Rauch’s vision of sameness. Sure the Capulet clan are lacrosse players, while the Montague mob favors soccer, but they both play sports; they both wear similar uniforms. They all go in and out of the same barred doors when the school bell rings, wearing the same crested navy jackets. Their families are both alike in dignity, though Jonathan Haugen as Lord Capulet seems to be vying for his glory days, with a hot and fiery temper, and a goblet of drink happily in hand.

What I do not question in this play is the acting. Christine Albright as Juliet is bright and beautiful. She distances herself from talk of marriage by sitting across the stage from her mother (Shona Tucker), giggling between appropriate responses just as a girl of not yet fourteen should. John Tufts as Romeo is impulsive, emotional, and extreme, lamenting to the sky for understanding. I didn’t fall in love with his Romeo, which can certainly happen in such a romantic tragedy. Heck, I’m still pining away for last season’s Cyrano, and I’ve never met Marco Barricelli in my life. I did, however, fall in love with Albright and Tufts. The two onstage together are appropriately one hand, one heart. When Tufts sees his Juliet rise in the East, he stops addressing the sky and turns to his audience— perhaps the only “adults” who understand him in this play—and explains to us her relationship to the heavens. He even kneels before a patron to try and make him grasp the delicacy of touching fair Juliet’s cheek. One of most lovely parts of a relationship is getting to the point of enjoying those uncomfortable silences. Tufts and Albright achieve this upon their second meeting, as Albright lingers on her starlit balcony, leaning her head against that imposing cross, and Tufts sighs down below as they both revel in an uncommonly long, yet perfectly timed silence over Juliet’s inability to remember why she called her Romeo back again. The generation gap is perfectly demonstrated in a scene that in a whirlwind, delivers two scenes at the same time. After Mercutio and Tybalt’s (René Millán) untimely demise, Juliet’s Nurse (played with comedic vigor by Demetra Pittman) informs her lady of Romeo’s bloody hand, followed by Romeo who informs Friar Lawrence (Mark Murphey) of his wrong doing. At first, the two sets of actors take turns, making the two scenes apparent, but as neither Nurse nor Friar understand their young friends, the four begin to circle the stage until eventually, it seems as though Romeo and Juliet are pleading with and standing against the adults who are yet again letting them down. Words run into one another, and in the end, the most important fact chimes out of Tuft’s and Albright’s mouths simultaneously. That Romeo is “banishèd!” Unfortunately, their death scene is somewhat lacking. There seems to be just too much going on to focus on the beauty and simplicity of their tragic love. Between the set, the secret service, the generation gap, and this sudden feeling that time is not of the essence, this final scene lacks passion and emotion, no matter how delicately our lovers’ hands are intertwined.

I am a bit confused by Rafael Untalan’s portrayal of Paris in a white leisure suit (seems more 1970s than either Italian Renaissance or 2007 to me), and I’m not a fan of the spandex-clad jogger who bounces across the stage from time to time, forcing Benvolio’s (Juan Rivera LeBron) eyes to pop out of his head. I can make some sense of an ill-suited Paris. It does highlight the idea that Juliet’s parents haven’t a clue as to whom their daughter is best-suited to marry. But I can’t understand why the 16th Century-clad Prince Escalus (Josiah Phillips) has an entourage of secret service men in black suits and shades.

What does fit, by all measures, is Dan Donohue as Mercutio. Batman, in his earliest forms, mind you, is an isolated vigilante who seeks justice. Mercutio is all this, with a sort of dark, comedic twist. Donohue’s delivery is deliciously tongue-in-cheek. He taunts the orchard wall-climbing Romeo via spotlight in the audience, and his Queen Mab monologue is surprisingly silly throughout, although there is a vibratile edge at its end that tells us all that not any adult, any peer, and perhaps not even we “get” him. As his fellows kick ‘round a soccer ball, wearing their purple and yellow polo shirts, Donohue looks more like a “Jet” (remember Riff?) in his black leather jacket and jeans. And his death follows his life—witty, bitter, and misunderstood.

But the final statement of the play is that of peace. Capulet and Montague bury their strife with their children. They walk toward one another in an effort to close the ancient gap once and for all. Following their children’s lead, the two households sign their own form of peace with a handshake. And with this, Rauch’s vision comes full circle. Perhaps a bit blurry along the way, this production is both insightful and innovative, and open in many ways for interpretation.

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