The Avengers' masks are apt allegories. The modern costumes, brilliant in design and execution (Erin M. West), are contextual references for the characters. Strip away the clothing—and the Blackfriars Playhouse being a replica of Shakespeare's indoor theater, the stage is already bare—and you get a Romeo and Juliet that is as pure as the one Shakespeare gave birth to.
Which takes some getting used to, in fact. This is the 20th stage production of this play I've seen, and the seventh in the past year (including the four-schoolboy adaptation, Shakespeare's R&J), and I've grown accustomed to thematic concepts: among them, homosexuality, hyperactive teens, Mafia families, the ironic generation, Columbine-inspired violence, tech-savviness, and 1847 California. How strange to see this play as simply about "Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona" and the "pair of star-crossed lovers" they breed. But, wow! what a good, timeless play Shakespeare wrote.
One of the few times I saw such a textcentric Romeo and Juliet was on this very stage in 2010 and from this very director, American Shakespeare Center Artistic Director Jim Warren, helming a production by the ASC's touring troupe. That production, even with some good performances, lacked passion and played with shackled energy.
This time out, though, Warren unleashes the verse through impassioned playing and perfect utilization of the Blackfriars space.
Romeo (Dylan Paul) tightropes his way along the wall separating the Lords Chairs from the stage; he even leaps over the audience sitting on the gallant stools. He climbs down from Juliet's balcony after their wedding night on the cords Shakespeare specifically shows us in the play itself. The monument scene combines action in the playhouse's upper gallery, on the center of the stage, and in the backstage space, giving spatial sense to Paris's and Romeo's encounter.
For passion, you get Capulets and Montagues who really, really—I mean really—hate each other but, clearly, with no cause. "There's no reason for this feud, there's no 'right side' in the feud," Warren writes in his program notes. "Neither family is 'better' than the other. There's no reason why Juliet should not be able to be matched with Romeo." But there's plenty of reason why they should be matched. Look at him! Look at her (Tracie Thomason)! Listen to her, the wit with which Juliet traipses gently toward womanhood. Listen to him, an intelligent romantic who recognizes that about him "is much to do with hate" while he wants only "more with love." Paul embodies the descriptive phrase applied to his character: "gentle Romeo."
Paul is a remarkable talent, shining bright in the chandelier of talent that illuminates every ASC production. His Romeo is never mushy or trite but merely youthful and yet mature. Paul's physical agility is matched by his agility with the verse, ever-engaging from his opening scenes with Benvolio (Chris Johnston) to his poison-swallowing death. For all the famous passages this play has, Romeo's banishment speech to Friar Laurence is this production's verbal highlight, as Paul, truly bereaved, steers his indubitably logical train of thought through raw emotion; at its destination, he is physically spent, curled on the floor.
Every member of the cast makes the most of their moments on stage, combining their Shakespearean skills with deep understanding of their characters and their contexts. "I want a world in which everyone is making the best possible choices for the people they love, and it still goes tragically wrong," Warren writes in his program notes. This context is most manifested in René Thornton Jr.'s portrayal of Capulet. He shows his common sense side when he forbids Tybalt (John Harrell) from attacking Romeo at the party. Upon discovering that Tybalt has been murdered at the hands of that same Romeo, Thornton uses the fact that Capulet has no lines in that scene as direction for overwhelming speechlessness. We're not sure he really liked Tybalt—Thornton's Capulet watches with some apprehension his wife (played with particular sharpness by Lee Fitzpatrick) shrilly mourn over their kinsman's body—but we're sure he's not in a place physically or emotionally he can handle at that moment. Afterward, we see him pondering, and then deciding, to marry Juliet to Paris as a means to lift not just his daughter but his whole household out of grief. When this blows up in his face upon Juliet's refusal, Thornton shows genuine pain in the disappointment, hurt in the anger. His behavior is nothing about domination and status but all about confusion and care-turned-heartbreak.
Warren engages in what might seem counterintuitive casting in having Allison Glenzer play Friar Laurence, and Benjamin Curns play Nurse. We're used to seeing Glenzer doing Nurse-type roles and Curns doing Friar-type roles, but the casting here is inspired. Curns skirts the pantomime style of men playing women in giving a genuinely comic portrayal of the "mumbling fool" in the comic first half. Curns's Nurse then becomes a tragic figure in the play's second half, bringing Juliet the news of the Tybalt-Romeo catastrophe, being the messenger between Juliet and Romeo, and advising Juliet to marry Paris as a matter of practicality. She's riding a runaway train she thinks has brakes, and her discovering Juliet supposedly dead is the moment the train plunges into the ravine of deepest despair, and Curns plunges in after in portraying Nurse's anguish. By keeping intact the wedding preparation scenes, Warren (through Shakespeare) shows the Nurse to be very much a member of the family, devoted to all the Capulets and fondly regarded by them, and we see this in the family unit portrayed by Curns, Thornton, Thomason, and Fitzpatrick.
(Warren also keeps in the scene of Peter scamming the musicians after Juliet's initial death scene. Shakespeare would, with Macbeth, perfect the device of inserting comic relief at the height of suspense, but he doesn't manage it skillfully here—unless he meant Juliet's supposed death to be played as comedy, as I've seen it done. Admirable though it may be that Warren keeps the scene out of devotion to a textcentric production, sometimes Shakespeare, like all writers great and less so, deserves editing.)
Glenzer skillfully navigates her Friar Laurence through his meditations, his comic reactions to Romeo's behavior, his earnest counsel to both Romeo and Juliet, his urgent anger over the waylaid letter to Romeo, and his panic in the tomb. It all leads to Glenzer's heart-shattering delivery of Laurence's explanation to the Prince of everything that's transpired. This is a priest in trouble, yes; it's also a caretaker whose attempts to help two youngsters have backfired. What really sinks this friar at this moment is revealed in the way Glenzer speaks the line that Juliet "too desperate, would not go with me, but, as it seems, did violence on herself." The actress's voice cracks and her posture shrivels as the priest tries to come to terms with the fact that by saving his reputation he allowed the girl to kill herself.
This is Glenzer's second revealing moment in her portrayal of the friar. "I do spy a kind of hope," Laurence says in staying Juliet from killing herself in his monastic cell, and Glenzer makes this an ah-ha moment for the friar remembering the sleeping dram. It's an ah-ha moment for me, too. I've written in many of my reviews of Romeo and Juliet that the measure of a successful production is whether the audience accepts the inevitability of the outcome or sees Shakespeare's plot as one full of holes. By so concentrating on Shakespeare's text instead of an overlaid conceptual context, and by following Warren's decree that the characters' choices all emanate from desire to do good, Glenzer's Friar Laurence here is crystalizing a complex assessment. In the immediate instant, he must keep Juliet from harming herself; in the surrounding circumstances he must buy time to get beyond the murder of Tybalt, which is obviously too fresh in the minds of the Capulets (their rash speed to get Juliet married indicates their current dysfunction); in the long-term he must reveal the marriage of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps Juliet's supposed death not only would buy time but temper the Capulet's ultimate reaction by turning her "resurrection," even as a Montague bride, into a joyful reunion. All of this, Glenzer conveys in this moment, making perfect sense of Friar Laurence's motives.
Gregory Jon Phelps plays Mercutio as an intelligent manchild powering through life on the fuel of self-centered arrogance—kind of like Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. Countering Romeo's belief in dreams, Phelps delivers Mercutio's Queen Mab speech as theater, physically and expressively animated without becoming manically so. When Romeo stops him, saying he talks of nothing, Phelps replies almost sheepishly, "True," a delivery that earns a laugh. But after the laughter drifts away, Phelps's Mercutio looks to Romeo in sly, know-it-all triumph, "I talk of dreams." The Tony Stark reference is not one I conjured myself; it is there in the production. For the Capulets' masque, Mercutio, Romeo, and Benvolio wear Avengers masks. Mercutio not only dons the Iron Man mask but mimics that character's movements and poses when doing so. Romeo wears Captain America: choosing to be the heroic innocent is an apt reflection of the Romeo in this play. Benvolio, meanwhile, chooses the Hulk, a bit of inside-Shakespeare humor: despite Benvolio's name meaning peacemaker (a role he tries to play twice in the play), Mercutio accuses him of being quick to brawl on the slightest provocation. Perhaps Benvolio is a bit of Bruce Banner, the mild-manner scientist who is ever aware that the slightest flick of temper will transform him into the Hulk, and Johnston plays the part with a nervous, finger-on-the-trigger edge underneath his fun-seeking veneer.
While the masks are obvious character allegories (and perhaps a subtle tribute to writer and director of The Avengers movie, Joss Whedon, whose film version of Much Ado About Nothing hit theaters the same time this Romeo and Juliet hit the Blackfriars), the overall costuming also carries thematic links to the characters. Except for Romeo in a red, plaid shirt, black vest, and jeans and Juliet in blue-print dress and tennis shoes, West dresses the characters with ultra-mod fashion in mind. Paris, a status-aware simpleton in the performance of Tim Sailer, wears the suit-and-fedora stylings of Frank Sinatra with the sleekness and shine of Vintage Trouble. Lord Montague (Curns) wears a long, white coat with fire-red trim while Emily Brown as Lady Montague is in a red blouse and gold-embroidered, knee-length red skirt. Lord Capulet is all shiny blue—vest, pants, tie, jacket—while Lady Capulet is in a tight blue dress with a short train showing snow leopard facing. The facing also appears in slashings across one side of the dress, which is a motif made more interesting by the fact that Tybalt, in addition to his sword, wears an archer's glove with talon claws on the knuckles with which he "scratches" Mercutio.
Tybalt, in coat with tails, striped trousers, and cravat, resembles a Deadwood gunslinger in appearance, and John Harrell plays him with a cocky composure borne of his sense of honor. He doesn't take his bout with Mercutio as a joke (though Mercutio is having a high time). However, when he returns to the stage after Mercutio's death, Harrell's Tybalt sees full well that something significant has changed: Romeo. Instead of going wild with anguish, Paul's Romeo grows calm with self-realization and resolve, a moment when he clearly steps from youthful innocence onto his family's track of violence. Both Mercutio's and Tybalt's swords are still on the ground, and upon Tybalt's return, Romeo, with determined control, kicks his sword to him. It's a Romeo that Harrell's Tybalt has never seen before, and it makes him, rightly, nervous.
Thomason's Juliet also has a clarified moment when she consciously slips through the safety net of childhood, as she prepares to take the Friar's sleep-like death dram. After her mother and Nurse have left her bedchamber, Juliet hits a wall of fear and calls for the Nurse; but Juliet then says, "What should she do here?" Thomason's Juliet decides in that moment that, as Romeo had said at his moment, "This day's black fate on more days doth depend, thus but begins the woe others must end." There's no going back; her course will lead where it will.
Both Romeo and Juliet would later rue their shedding the shackles of innocence—don't we all. But instead of turning back to their safety nets for, at the least, temporary respite and repair, they choose to take another step on their course to self-destruction—the final step, in fact.
Never was a story of more woe, for so we truly feel at the end of this presentation of Juliet and her Romeo.
This review also appears on Shakespeareances.com