O, so light a foot
Will ne’er wear out the everlasting flint.
A lover may bestride the gossamer
That idles in the wanton summer air,
And yet not fall; so light is vanity.
The thing that most people will talk about regarding Soviet dramatist Sergei Radlov’s original story concept and homage to Romeo & Juliet is that the title characters live happily ever after. Purists might not be able to stomach the lovers’ survival, but this is no show for purists, and I’m not sure there ever was a show purists could enjoy. If you can’t enjoy Mark Morris Dance Group’s “Romeo and Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare,” I’m not sure you can enjoy anything. Something like this is hard to pull off, vying to be an iconoclast, but that’s exactly what director and choreographer Mark Morris does with his West Coast premiere of "R&J Motifs." The dancers embody their characters in ways that actors simply can’t, and what transpires is a whole new experience of a story that everyone already thinks they know. But if you think you know the story, think again.
The show starts with a fray, but this time the town’s women are in the fight, and even though Benvolio (Dallas McMurray) and Tybalt’s (Julie Worden) sword fight is more dance than battle, the fray is somehow more brutally violent. Prokofiev’s music accentuates the dancers’ motions to the point that when Sampson bites his thumb, it’s shocking for the first time ever. The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stefan Asbury, deserves the standing ovation the audience offered, because they brought the music, the soviet adaptation, and the playwright to life.
The gestures between the clans backed up by the orchestra keep them from being lost in history as quaint insults of antiquity. The fight is broken up by a prince (Joe Bowie) whose strong presence and stern approach is offset by his calming hands. He embodies the ultimate prince whose word is feared but whose rule is soft and steady. Again, the orchestra comes in handy here; horns and drums and volume when the Prince points at and scolds each parental Montague and Capulet (Guillermo Resto, Teri Weksler and Shawn Gannon, Megan Williams), while quietly plaintive strings urge them to still their cankered hands of hate.
The ubiquitous nurse (Lauren Grant) is still the best part in the play. Here she is the smallest person on stage but she has the biggest presence. She is elfish enough to seem magical and mischievous, and she is a welcome addition to any scene. Grant is hilarious without being too much of a clown, and she does more for the character with dance than most actors have been able to do with speech. It’s incredible to see the nurse expressing herself through dance. She’s a complicated one, and Grant does an impeccable job.
Another show stealer is Mercutio. I am always surprised when I meet a Mercutio I like, and I loved this one. Amber Darrach, a beautiful woman, plays a man so well that disbelief is not only suspended but eliminated. Mercutio laughs and taunts and does all the things he normally does, but at the masque he also provides precedence for his anger with Tybalt and his bawd scene with the nurse. He disrupts the order everyone else wants and dances in the face of everyone else’s plans. There are a lot of plans in Romeo & Juliet, and Mercutio touches them all. I never say bravo, but bravo Amber Darrach.
Juliet (Maile Okamura) enters, and she is the only Juliet I have ever seen who is as light as gossamer. Okamura floats onto the stage with all the innocence of a child, into a scene where her nurse and her mother show her how to be a woman. It’s a sweetly clumsy moment, and it sets in motion a motif that manages to gracefully age Juliet throughout the performance. She matures and becomes a woman by the end of the show, and it is remarkable. She goes from a girl who is pushed around and guided by her parents and Paris (Brandon McDonald) at the masque to a young woman owning her sexuality and autonomy during the bedroom scene and faux suicide. Rather than be cut off by death, we are in awe as we behold Juliet blossoming into a grown woman who has found her true love. Okamura’s Juliet is dynamic and leaves the audience truly wanting to see her make it out of the play alive.
Throughout the production, Okamura’s distance from Romeo is palpable like it is in traditional stagings of the play, which is surprising since the “balcony scene” is a dance number between Romeo and Juliet. The lovers share the stage perhaps more than the play calls for, but Morris doesn’t undermine Shakespeare. During the masque, there are so many people on the stage blocking Romeo and Juliet from one another, that it’s a relief when they finally touch and Romeo kisses her palm. The balcony scene is peppered by the urgency of their situation and Romeo’s reluctance to leave as the nurse keeps interrupting them. The bedroom scene is deliciously romantic, but the light from stage left, the sun rising, brings a new day of doom on Romeo and pulls him from her. Only in the very end, when you think the show is over, and the curtain rises one last time like clouds after a storm, do the lovers seem really together. Romeo and Juliet are dancing in heaven; the lights are still on but the stage has completely changed. Stars are now on all the walls. Their dance is a little awkward at first. No one has seen the lovers survive, and all of the doubt inherent in young love and marriage tugs somewhere. But the number becomes more fluent and touching, and before you know it, the stars are shining brightly and the lovers look like they are dancing in the sky, like we have all been transported to someplace more beautiful and forgiving than this world—a place where Romeo and his Juliet orbit around each other like magnets drawn together for an eternity. This is the image as the final curtain falls.
Scenic Designer, Allen Moyer, provides the dancers with enough room to tell the story while establishing location. Truly impressive. This is probably also due to James F. Ingalls’ lighting design, which directs our eyes to the action, and sheds light on the concepts of time and space and place, be it dawn or dusk, the house of Capulet or the streets of Verona, the beginning or the end, or in this case, the beginning again.