Romeo and Juliet
The Hour Is Upon Us
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre, Central Park, Louisville, Kentucky
Saturday, July 10, 2016, third row, center of amphitheater benches
Directed by Matt Wallace
Juliet (Megan Massie) hears the morning lark as Romeo (Crystian Wiltshire) dresses in the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival's production of Romeo and Juliet. Below, Capulet (Jon Huffman, left) welcomes Benvolio (Braden McCampbell), Mercutio (Byron Coolie) and Romeo to his party. Photos courtesy of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.
It is often advertised as the greatest love story ever told: William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It could also just as fittingly be called the greatest hate story ever told. "Here's much to do with hate," Romeo says, "but more with love. Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!"
The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival's production is romantic to the core. Sitting in front of us were two girls, sisters perhaps, I estimate one to be 12, the other 15; they turned giddy with anticipation at the point Romeo and Juliet first meet and begin speaking their mutual sonnet. However, through his incisive direction, Matt Wallace, the festival's producing artistic director, gives us a Romeo and Juliet that has much to do with hate, demonstrating violence's insidious psychological effects on individuals and society, not only back then and there but more importantly here and now—especially in the place and on the day I write this.
Shakespeare doesn't reveal the cause of hate between the Montagues and Capulets. The most we get is that "The quarrel is between our masters and us their men," says Gregory, a Capulet servant, in the opening scene. That the passion of hate is real shows in Tybalt, Capulet's nephew, who hates the word peace as much as he hates hell and all Montagues. This hate is especially noticeable in the ferocious portrayal by Kentucky Shakespeare's Neill Robertson who, lithe of body and firm in his resolve, is the scariest Tybalt I've ever encountered. Such is Tybalt's hate that he tries to get past his uncle to kill Romeo at the Capulet's party, and he takes on Mercutio, a close kin to Verona's Prince, simply because he's friends with Romeo (Mercutio's exalted status in Verona is first established—even before we meet the guy—by his inclusion on the guest list for Capulet's party).
The way Robertson's Tybalt delivers his lines is one of several means with which Wallace maintains a strong undertow of enmity and fear throughout this Romeo and Juliet. In 2012, Wallace directed prisoners in a production of Romeo and Juliet for Shakespeare Behind Bars. "Working on this play for a year with them and exploring the themes of love and the consequences of violence in the prison setting cannot help but inform my feelings and approach," Wallace writes in his program notes for his Kentucky Shakespeare Festival production. After touring that Shakespeare Behind Bars production through Kentucky and southern Indiana, Wallace noted how "relating the tragedy to today's social issues resonated across the state, and we are grateful to explore the story further and even more deeply here in Central Park," the outdoor venue in the heart of the Old Louisville neighborhood that is home to the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.
Wallace starts off this deeper exploration with two visual cues. The subtle one is setting the play in the time and place of the origin story, 1303 Verona. This was right at the dawn of the Renaissance when Italian society was emerging from the Middle Ages—the "Dark Ages." "All eyes were on Italy, just as all eyes are on the United States today, with this contentious election year and escalating rhetoric and violence," Wallace writes. Costume Designer Donna Lawrence-Downs dresses the noblemen in long, tapestry-like robes and the ladies in elaborate dresses while the young men and servants wear doublets and short, blousy breeches over white or black tights.
This setting evokes a time of transition from the feudal society of noblemen and serfs to the rise of the merchant middle class, a transition that evokes uncertainty. Such is the feeling underlying the young Romeo (Crystian Wiltshire) when he learns of his banishment after killing Tybalt. Certainly, he encases his consternation in the fact that he can no longer be with Juliet or even look upon her, but yet, "There is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself," he says. "Exile hath more terror in his look, much more than death."
In a society attempting to find a firm footing in order and decorum—represented by Capulet's party and Capulet himself (Jon Huffman) insisting to Tybalt that Romeo, though a party crasher, be left alone—the ongoing senseless violence works hard on the individual and collective psyches. Wiltshire's Romeo is pretty much a puppy dog, and he's genuinely bothered when he learns of the brawl preceding his appearance in the opening act. However, he turns Rottweiler upon Tybalt slaying Mercutio. In his fight with Tybalt, this Romeo obviously is not the trained fencer that Tybalt and Mercutio are (as per Mercutio's assertion to Benvolio that Romeo will be overmatched in a duel with Tybalt, no matter his sense of valor). However, Tybalt's finesse is no match for Romeo's fury, and Romeo ends up hurting Tybalt in three places, the last, purposeful slice with his sword eliciting an audible gasp from the audience.
Megan Massie plays Juliet as very much a young teen: smart and even wise, but her immaturity overmatched by reality. "Every tongue that speaks but Romeo's name speaks heavenly eloquence," she says in her wedding night soliloquy just as Nurse enters with the news that Romeo slew Tybalt. "O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!" Juliet now says of Romeo. "Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave? Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!" and on she goes for 10 more lines equating Romeo to anything opposite to heaven and eloquence. But as soon as Nurse chimes in with "Shame come to Romeo," Juliet suddenly switches back. She's not ready to lose her heaven represented by Romeo, and you can see Massie working out the logic that, as his wife, she is bound by duty to support Romeo.
In this scene, a single line spoken with utter resignation by the Nurse (Marci Duncan as a vibrant, middle age woman) rises to prominence: "These griefs, these woes, these sorrows make me old."
Wallace's other, more obvious visual cue in exploring the hate in this play is casting actors of color to portray all kin of and servants to the Montagues and white actors as the Capulets clan. Prince Escalus and Paris are white; Nurse and Mercutio are black. This color-casting gets no further emphasis in line readings or performance except with Duncan's often sassy turns as Nurse and Byron Coolie's Mercutio resembling Chris Rock's quick-to-see-racism character in reacting to Tybalt's comment that he "consort'st with Romeo." "Consort! What, dost thou make us minstrels?" Mercutio replies. "An thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords." Even with these moments, the racial significance may be based more on our own psychological barometers rather than intent of performance.
Yet, as with the minstrel reference (coming from a black man), this Romeo and Juliet is brimming with such striking line readings that I can't believe it's all the result of my sudden acute awareness after seeing two dozen stage productions and countless films. I'm pretty sure these impressions are manipulated by Wallace's direction and the actors' approaches to playing their characters, guiding us to pierce through the play's comedy and romance to the prevailing hate and fear lying in full view there though we try to avert our eyes.
For example, Huffman and Maupin play the Capulets as very much in love with a true affection and a sexual passion for each other (they are the only pairing we know for sure will have a tumble in the bed after their party). It's a refreshing take on a relationship that most directors see as shallow, dried up, or forced upon Lady Capulet; it also reverberates deeply when Capulet loses his cool over Juliet's refusal to marry Paris. His anger comes from a source of deep disappointment, not only that his daughter—who has had him wrapped around her little finger all these years—seems to have turned on him, but also that his reputation is at risk: "I'll not be forsworn," he seethes upon his exit. Lady Capulet's subsequent turning away of Juliet is forged from her love and unwavering regard for her husband. Juliet is a victim in this scene, certainly; but the Capulets are victims, too, even if self-imposed by expectation or imposed by a society structured on arbitrary rules of prejudicial conduct.
The most significant of these singular line readings, however, is textual and not performance-based. When Lady Capulet asks her daughter "How stands your disposition to be married?" Juliet replies, "It is an hour that I dream not of." "An hour!" cries Nurse: "Were not I thine only nurse, I would say thou hadst suck'd wisdom from thy teat." The word used in the First Quarto version of the play is honour rather than hour—"an honour I dream not of"—but subsequent quarto and the First and Second Folios use hour. Wallace adheres to the First Folio for his scripts, but most editors and modern editions—and, consequently, every production I've heard—opt for honour, noting that typographically the latter word could have been a misreading of that in the original quarto (the n in honour can look like a u in Elizabethan transcript); besides, doesn't honour make more sense?
Not here: "an hour that I dream not of" makes perfect sense in this violence-prone society where young people might not even dare dream of an hour of consummate love, the moment that marks your arrival as an adult. This is the wisdom that, Nurse acknowledges, Juliet could only arrive at herself, the girl who later tells Romeo, "I must hear from thee every day in the hour, for in a minute there are many days." As premonitions go—premonitory dreams being one of the key themes in Romeo and Juliet—this one is the most profound, for the hour of marriage for Juliet and Romeo is the same hour that unleashes the play's cycle of tragedy: the murders of Mercutio and Tybalt and the exile of Romeo. We can't be certain, but the couple's time together on their wedding night may well have been little more than an hour, too, given Romeo's need to leave Verona before the watch is set—one hour of what proves to be eternal love in a lifetime of hate and fear.
It's a momentous hour for this production, too. We've seen the rope ladder Romeo is supposed to use to ascend to Juliet's bedchamber. However, we see him ascend using a metal ladder that had been leaning between the walls of the set and a large tree growing through one side of the stage. As the morning lark sings and "jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops," Romeo is dressing, buttoning the cuffs of a collared Oxford shirt, not the Renaissance blouse he had been wearing. When Juliet emerges from her bedchamber to meet with her mother, she has on a modern terry cloth robe. Next time we see her at Friar Laurence's cell, she's wearing hip-hugger blue jeans and a tank-tee. By the time the family has gathered around her supposed corpse the next morning, all of the characters are in modern dress. The police sirens wailing through the Old Louisville night during the cemetery scene turn out to be part of the play as uniformed cops arrive to investigate the "Pitiful sight! Here lies the county slain, and Juliet bleeding, warm, and newly dead, who here hath lain these two days buried."
Unfortunately, that line spoken through a police radio, causes a ripple of derisive titters in the audience, always a danger when you shift time settings but not the language (the Royal Shakespeare Company used a similar device in its 2011 production in New York resulting in a similar slippery slope of credibility). But in the preceding scene, Shakespeare's language is absolutely apt as spoken by the preppy-dressed Romeo to the Apothecary (Maggie Lou Rader) in ragged jeans and shirt: "Famine is in thy cheeks, need and oppression starveth in thine eyes, contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back. The world is not thy friend, nor the world's law; the world affords no law to make thee rich. Then be not poor, but break it." Is that not a creed—if not openly professed then at least practiced—by disenfranchised people in a "modern" society that seems to be transitioning back toward the deep schism between the nobility and serfs of the Dark Ages?
In his program notes, Wallace points to the fact that Louisville's murder rate has seen a significant rise this year. While the community has been trying to come to terms with this epidemic of violence, it also experienced something profound the first week of June. Native son Muhammad Ali died, and for the seven days from his death to his final memorial service, the city's crime rate was nil and residents reported mystical moments involving butterflies and bees. On the day I write this, in the Hilton Seelbach Hotel in downtown Louisville overlooking the Fourth Street corridor that was ground zero for the Civil Rights movement in this city 56 years ago, a memorial service is being held in Dallas for the five police officers killed by sniper gunfire during a black lives matter protest—a memorial service notable for its multiracial composition.
Is this our own "glooming peace," like that Prince Escalus speaks of at the end of Romeo and Juliet. He at least is the voice of government admitting his own complicity in the violence: "Capulet! Montague! See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love. And I for winking at your discords, too, have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish'd." Jon Patrick O'Brien plays Escalus, who also serves as the play's opening Chorus. With his commanding delivery of Shakespeare's verse, his is the most arresting Chorus I've seen, and from the very beginning, he leaves—as so much of this production does—a lasting impression on our individual and collective psyches:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
July 12, 2016
Dreams With Wings
In the hour before the evening's play begins, the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival presents a pre-show by community groups or artists. On this night, Dreams with Wings, a local organization with the mission of "empowering children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism" presented a 45-minute version of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Almost all of the roles are played by Dreams with Wings clients, who have varying degrees of disabilities. Two counselors supplement the cast, a coach stands like a conductor at the front of the stage motioning cues and other instructions, and a narrator summarizes Shakespeare's story—well, summarizes and embellishes a bit, such as telling us that Nick Bottom and Francis Flute are "discussing the finer points of Stanislavski's theories on acting" while the rest of the Rude Mechanicals are being ushered into their places, and noting how dumbfounded the fairies are upon seeing Bottom with an ass's head because "Even though they were mystical creatures, they'd never seen a donkey man before."
The narrator speaks the lines for each character from over the shoulder of the actor (client and counselor alike) and the actor would then repeat the lines. This is not, however, a Pavlov's dog scenario. Most of the actors have developed their characters, in some cases opposite their personalities. The man playing Demetrius angrily bellows at Helena but, as he waits for his turns at the back of the stage, he offers high-fives to the other performers when they finish a scene. Hermia is as spiteful a Hermia as I've ever seen, even doing a ritual spit of disgust at the mention of Demetrius. Puck is all ham, gleefully watching the Rude Mechanicals and the audience's reaction. And Titania gets off the best line of the night slightly off script: "I had a dream," she tells Oberon before being prompted by the narrator, "that I had a donkey for my baby boy." No scholastic modernization of "enamored of an ass" can top that. A young man with highly involved intellectual disabilities plays Snug, and once he gets his first cue to roar as the lion, he never lets up—for the entire show. The coaches gently convince him to save his roaring for later, but Demetrius's roaring for Hermia or at Helena sets off Snug to roaring again even as he waits at the back of the stage.
The audience, it should be noted, laugh at the characters, plot, and lines, not the actors, and the coaches on stage are distinguishable only by their black shirts and pants, matching that of the narrator (not until after the show when I saw the man playing Oberon calling on the man playing Bottom, who was in the restroom changing "out of my uniform," was I certain that Oberon was a counselor). Both the cast and the Shakespeare are treated respectfully—even if Robin Goodfellow "really pucked up," and Lysander and Demetrius fighting over who gave Helena a bigger ring leads her to ask, "Is this the RNC national debate?"
"Never was a story of more woe than of Thisbe and her Pyramo," the narrator concludes, and as the Dreams with Wings cast take their bows, we are left to wonder if the headliners on this evening's playbill, Juliet and her Romeo, have just been upstaged.
For a similar experience with A Midsummer Night's Dream at a retirement community, see "Still Dreaming: Past the Wit of Man to Say What Dream It Was" in the On Screen section of Shakespeareances.com. For more information on Dreams With Wings, go to www.dreamswithwings.org.
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