Romeo and Juliet
This Production Is a Rush
National Players, Montgomery College-Rockville Theatre Arts Arena, Rockville, Md.
Thursday, April 4, 2013, fourth row, center
Directed by Jason King Jones
Juliet (Britian Seibert) and Romeo (Ian Kramer) struggle to connect over the gap between her balcony and the orchard wall on which he stands in the National Players' production of Romeo and Juliet. Seibert and Kramer breathed new life into this famous scene. Below, the aftermath of Tybalt's death: from left Lady Montague (Katie Lock), the Prince (Matthew Lytle) holding the dead Mercutio's kilt, Lady Capulet (Sydney Lemmon), Tybalt (Justin Keith Weaks), and Capulet (Zach Bryant). Photos by Sonie Mathew, Olney Theatre Center.
The poignant moment of this play is a moment of silence. The murders of Mercutio and Tybalt and the banishment of Romeo close out the play's first half, and after the intermission, Britian Seibert as Juliet appears on stage, alone, isolated in light. She stands there long enough for the ironic reality to sink in to the audience: Juliet doesn't know what has happened yet, and in this ignorance she eagerly awaits the arrival of her newly wed Romeo. After this pause, Seibert runs to the front of the stage and rushes through her "come night" speech.
Time gallops apace in this timeless tale, and this production by the eight-actor touring troupe of the Olney, Md.,–based National Players drives through its two hours' traffic upon the stage like a road rage–inducing, lane-cutting Bimmer. They zip through Shakespeare's verse so fast they don't even pause at the jokes, and the audience's laughter overtakes the dialogue. Therefore, it's the silences—Romeo and Juliet at a brief loss for words in the balcony scene, the two again wordlessly staring at each other after he descends from her chamber to travel into banishment—that then carry so much emotional heft.
Costumed by Pei Lee in modern chic with the Montagues sporting turquoise and the Capulets hot pink, this Romeo and Juliet is thoroughly contemporary in attitude and device. Capulet texts Peter the party guest list. Benvolio and Mercutio play video games, and Peter then gets so locked on the game he isn't aware of Mercutio's assault on Nurse. Benvolio calls Romeo in Mantua on a cell phone to tell him of Juliet's supposed death (when Romeo's phone rings, the audience looks around for the culprit, ready to pounce with intense psychic scorn on whoever forgot to turn their phone off for the play). The set designed by Cristina Todesco with lighting by Gary Slootskiy is three scrim panels that the actors adjust during the action of the play to create doorways, rooms, and a chapel. The panels are fitted with tube lights that create the cross in Friar Laurence's cell and the decor for Capulet's house. The party is played as silhouettes behind the panels while Romeo and Juliet speak their opening sonnets in front; the apothecary is a ghostlike image pressing into the scrim from behind. Metal tables serve as the balcony, benches, a bed, and the car in which Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio race to the Capulets' party.
The conflicting specter of time plays out most in the performance of Seibert's Juliet. She's impetuously impatient, a constant burst of teen-age energy in almost every scene, arms and legs rarely at rest. Seibert speaks her lines in the same manner. Though Juliet cautions herself and Romeo, too, that their relationship is moving too fast, she can't help living in the now. "Although I joy in thee, I have no joy of this contract tonight. It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden, too like the lightning which doth cease to be ere one can say it lightens," she says, presenting the lightning simile like a girl ever conscious of her own cleverness. Fifteen lines later she has cast off all caution: "My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee the more I have, for both are infinite." When love feels infinite, what does anything beyond now matter?
For the most part, Seibert's ADHD-tinged reading works, and it enhances the comedy in her interactions with Nurse (Katie Lock). However, her self-conscious intelligence undermines the emotional power of the "Come night" speech, in which Seibert's Juliet is not so much anticipating her first night of love (not only with Romeo but ever) as working through clever allegorical passages for the audience. It's a letdown from that moment of silent pathos that immediately precedes the speech.
The balcony scene, though, is splendid. Watching Seibert's Juliet war with herself while engaged in an awkward romantic tête-à-tête with Romeo (Ian Kramer) is both funny and moving. Because Romeo has overheard her meditations, she can't hide behind courtship conventions—nor is she sure she wants to. Seibert's Juliet is not only grappling with the situation, she's coming to terms with her own growing maturity and the realization that she's embracing a life-altering love affair. Kramer's Romeo, like us, can only watch her in charmed fascination. Director Jason Kin Jones blocks the scene so that the two lovers, using the tables for the balcony railing and orchard wall, face the audience for the first half of the scene; when Romeo climbs to the balcony, they turn to each other. Thus do we journey with them into their everlasting connection.
Kramer plays Romeo as a young man going wherever his libido leads him. His emotions sway according to external stimuli. He pouts around Mercutio and Benvolio when his love of Rosalyn is unrequited, he buddies up with them when his love for Juliet is requited. He lurches through a whole range of emotions in the Mercutio-Tybalt brawl scene. This is not to say his affection for Juliet is affectation; he truly is smitten from the moment he spies her at the party—this girl is the only thing that can pry him from his iPod—and when she returns his kiss, this boy, so used to Rosalyn's rejection, becomes wholly hers.
For the tragedy to work, we must believe that Romeo feels he has no choice but to kill himself upon learning that Juliet is dead; after that balcony scene, Kramer's Romeo has no choice. Maybe his experience is limited by age, but he is certain there can be nothing beyond Juliet. Can we jaded old-timers relate? Sure. Try to relive your first true love when you were 17—and I mean that moment with a boy or girl when your heart first did backflips and your libido charged into overdrive—and remember that you were not only caught up in the throes of each other but the throes of expectation. Time has let those expectations run their course (even if you have been spending all of your life since with that person). Romeo and Juliet don't get that time: The tragedy of their circumstances comes to fruition just as their initial passion is spiking and expectation is all-consuming. Notice the one word that both can't bear hearing above all else: banishment. Being apart from each other is more unbearable than death.
For the tragedy to work, we also must believe the circumstances that swallow Romeo and Juliet are inevitable. Although this troupe puts forth some fine performances, we can't wholly buy into the chain of events. If Benvolio uses a cell phone to reach Romeo, why does Friar Laurence use Friar John as his courier service? As this society is presented on stage, Friar Laurence (Dan Hasty) could easily provide Juliet sanctuary and reveal her marriage with Romeo to the Capulets and Montagues; after all, he proceeded with the marriage in the first place as a way to turn the "households' rancour to pure love." And while I have no problem with setting Shakespeare's plays anywhere and any time, a modern setting for this play begs the question of why doesn't Friar Laurence simply send Juliet on to Romeo in Mantua and let them get on with their lives.
When you're asking these questions, something's amiss, and it's usually in the translation. Some mistranslations stand out in this production, but only partially because a cast of eight actors requires significant cuts. Sydney Lemmon plays Benvolio as an Avril Lavigne–like riot girl not at all in keeping with the character's Christian name as peacemaker. She is as much an initiator of the play-opening brawl as Tybalt (Justin Keith Weaks), and in the centerpiece brawl she teams up with Mercutio to fight Tybalt. Lemmon's performance is nevertheless a captivating one (she doubles as a frosty Lady Capulet), and she and Kramer play the relationship of cousins Benvolio and Romeo as intergender best friends (without benefits). Benvolio, however, seems to be enjoying benefits with their other friend, Mercutio (Matthew Lytle), a kilt-wearing hooligan and Beastie Boy literally fighting for his right to party. His Queen Mab speech slips into hip hop at places, and his wit contest with Romeo comes off as a rap slam. Lytle's Mercutio is such a lovable lout that the audience kept laughing at him in his death scene; of course, this is a Mercutio that can't take anything seriously—even his own death—but needs to blame his own behavior on others: "A plague o' both your houses!" he roars contemptuously. Kramer's Romeo is an endearing guy, but you have to question his wisdom in the company he keeps.
Juliet's company has been confined to the Capulet household. Zach Bryant plays Lord Capulet as a man of social self-reverence and a hint of danger tightly wound in his double-breasted white jacket and pink ascot. He's made sure his only daughter is a sheltered girl. Juliet has a tender relationship with her cousin, Tybalt; at the party, he encourages her to mingle with the boys, but she'd prefer to be left alone—until she sees Romeo. Juliet's closest relationship is with Nurse. Lock plays up the part's comedy, but she also plays the role as Juliet's surrogate mother and best friend—a Falstaff to Juliet's Hal. As Seibert's Juliet joins in on Nurse's punchlines, we realize how much time and conversation they have shared over the years. We also realize that all of Juliet's sex education and attitude toward men comes from Nurse—and it's a bawdy attitude, for sure. Lock's Nurse believes she's looking out for Juliet's best interests when she recommends that the girl forget Romeo and marry Paris (Weaks' Paris is an innocuously nice guy); Nurse, though, hasn't comprehended what a life-change Juliet has gone through in the previous 24 hours.
In the end, though, this Juliet betrays Romeo. Upon discovering his body in the tomb, she places his knife in his hand and then stabs herself. Why would Juliet do this? The answer may be in the way Bryant's Capulet disgustedly knocks Romeo's hand away from his dead daughter. Juliet is so self-conscious of her status that even after suicide she doesn't want any blame to be laid on her. Maybe she's not matured after all. Maybe she thought she could outrun the rush of passion but realizes now she's made so many wrong choices that she can't see beyond them as much as Romeo can't see beyond Juliet.
Everybody in this play makes wrong choices; but in this production, Romeo's choices alone have the purity of sincerity.
April 9, 2013