A few years ago, a couple mates in London, deeming themselves the Factory Theatre Company, cobbled together a loose production of Hamlet and toured it around town—in bars, on street corners, and on the sets of shows having an off-night. The cast would be changed up every night and the actors would use whatever props were available, whether provided by the space or the audience (including a live infant one night). They preferred an underground aura, inspired by flash mobs and Banksy. They didn’t send out press passes, but rather a mass email every week detailing where the next show was going to be. The press did come, and loved it. So did movie stars, including Ewen McGregor. This Factory Hamlet was raw, hip, yet still very Shakespeare.
One viewer among the hundreds who saw the Factory’s production was Roger Smart, the artistic director for Chicago’s Shattered Globe Theatre. He imports the Factory’s ethos over the Atlantic, but uses Romeo and Juliet as his platform. The plan is to sweep this production to whomever will take it, whether a bar, park, or stage. All the actors can perform several roles, and the audience votes (via an official applause-o-meter, aka Smart’s ears) for who plays what. Like in London, the story gobbles up the space and audience, exploiting everything to serve the story.
This model should work very well in Chicago. We love underground stuff. However, the production, explosive as it is, doesn’t go as extreme as it could. It needs some refining; the show teeters dangerously between production and acting class final.
The performance I saw was upstairs at the Spot, a cozy little bar that provides an ideal space for the show. Upon entering, we receive a little nametag that identifies us as a Capulet or a Montague. Then we vote on who plays whom. There’s, like, five million actors involved in this production. Only a fraction comes to each show, but there are several options for almost every role. On the night I went, Steve Peebles played Romeo and Dion Rice played Juliet (two men in this inadvertent gender-bent production). Rebecca Cox was voted nurse, Christina Goman nabbed Mercutio, and Angie Shriner (one of the picks for Juliet) got Benvolio. We also elected a Mama and Papa Capulet, a friar, a Tybalt…really, far too many characters. I’d say the audience should vote for the star-crossed lovers, and let the supporting cast sort themselves out. It would make character-actor identification much easier.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is great fodder for this style of in-your-face poetry. There’s humor, including quite a few not-safe-for-junior-high-English-class references to genitalia. And I always love a good bar fight, especially when it involves daggers and swords. Greg Poljacik’s violent design doesn’t shy away from close shaves to the audience, although it is a bit draggy for my taste (probably a necessity due to the tight proximity to non-actors). The tragedy of the piece punches through stunningly, which isn’t an easy feat considering the story is known to anybody with a high school diploma.
The extent of the audience involvement is ill-formed. We all take different sides (I was a Montague, in case you were wondering). We hurl some Shakespearean barbs at the opposing crowd, creating the cacophony that starts the show. Other than that, the family division isn’t used much. We sit together. We all receive invitations to the Capulet ball, a detail that seemed overlooked. Some Montagues are asked to dance. The dancing, however, provides a nicely chaotic backdrop to Romeo’s love-at-first-sight (especially since someone knocked a drink to the floor the night I went).
Obviously, with a show like this, the (mostly young) actors carry the day. Each does a worthy job. The language is well-handled and respected. The cast occasionally falls into the habit over-contemporizing Shakespeare’s verse, but that’s a minor irritation. The performances are highly physical and use whatever levels they can find. Sometimes, though, I wondered if we’re just shelling out the money to watch actors have fun with an old text. More weight could be placed on the story—the plot could be better crafted. Smart’s hand is largely absent from the piece, besides an especially tragic turn at the end.
The interesting consequence of American Idol-style casting is that different themes are highlighted. The show begs for repeat viewings. On my night, for example, the show involuntarily brought up gay marriage, racial divides, and feminist theory (with Goman’s highly-sexualized portrayal of Mercutio). That’s the show’s real strength. It’s also definitely worth a taste for Shakespeare haters—the energy’s intense, the iambic pentameter’s well-articulated, and the story never bores. This is a Romeo and Juliet for the 21st Century, Great Recession and all.