I’ve had a lot of trouble beginning this review. Shakespeare means so much to so many people, inevitably I will ruffle feathers, maybe hurt some feelings. My job however, is to critique a production from my own opinion and personal experience, so... here we go.
First, my thoughts on the Bard. On one hand he is “widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist,” (thanks Google), and because of this, his plays are often treated with pedestal high reverence and respect. Celebrated for his imagery in language and situational yet timeless storytelling, people have dedicated their lives to studying his work and words and immortality.
On the other hand, Shakespeare was just a guy, though commissioned by royalty, he was a writer for the people, the groundlings, the common man. His bawdy, base, almost bathroom humor takes that imposed idolatry down a few pegs and I think that’s what he intended-plays that appeal to and are understood by everyone.
So, what’s my issue with producing Shakespeare? I HAVE no issue if you are simply and easily presenting his work. Of course choosing a time period, some cool color schemes to help people recognize who’s on who’s side, cross casting, (why not, none of these things necessarily alter the essence of the piece)...but Shakespeare invented a damn fine wheel and there is no need to try and impose another blueprint on his time tested model, (for how many hundreds of years?). I want to see a production stay simple, ‘speak the speech’ clearly and confidently, and honor the message; leaving preciousness and pretentiousness at the (stage)door.
Mission Theatre Company has produced their version of Romeo and Juliet, promising it “will be ambitious, brave, fast, funny, and relentlessly tragic.” Sadly I don’t think they deliver. Right away I was confused about where we were... and why? The set consists of leveled platforms placed far upstage of the new Crane Theatre Black Box. It looks to be constructed out of brown butcher paper, crumpled for texture. A cave? Post apocalypse? The moon? The characters come out dressed in black, sporting glittery eye makeup and (with Rocky Horror reminiscence), do palm to palm dance between an unknown couple, to set up the idea that love is... cyclical? Again, just the beginning of so many unanswered questions. The ensemble begins an unison stomping and then the opening monologue begins. I was immediately puzzled by the affected speech these actors were, no doubt, directed to deliver. I am by no means an expert on iambic pentameter, blank verse, or the occasional troche, but I am confident in my use of scansion and the importance of powering through a line to the end of a complete thought. The production was entirely spoken with beats/breaths at the end of the verse line, and this made the understanding of the text, and consequently the character connections, very difficult to follow. As I mentioned it was consistent enough to be a specific choice, yet I am not sure why it was made?
The piece was cut, I assumed for time’s sake, but the choice of cuttings, when replaced with knap-less fighting and 1960-80’s love songs sung live by ensemble members, I found confusing. For time period? Ambience? Was it worth trimming some of the most beautiful speeches in the Cannon (“gallop apace you fiery footed steeds”), for a rendition of “Do you believe in Magic” by The Lovin’ Spoonful? Still, more questions! Why were some of the most important conversations blocked upstage of the loud dancing/stomping revelers in the party scene? The tomb scene began upstage as well and with high ceilings and odd speech patterns I lost so much information.
I could go on, but it is clear that I didn’t understand or agree with many of the artistic choices, and though Mission promises an “ambitious” production, I found that perhaps they were trying so hard to make it “special” and “new” that the story, language and ultimate message was lost to me. That said the production goes into it’s final weekend this Thursday and, while I’ll never tell anyone NOT to see a show, I found my experience, in this crinkly papered Verona, more distracting than inspiring. It also runs two hours without an intermission so if you go, be prepared to be in it for the long haul.
While I agree that “there’s something bright, attractive, and urgently relevant about this play when fearlessly performed” I don’t think this version succeeded in doing so. However, please feel free to go, check it out, and form your own opinion. I’ll happily discuss it further.