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Romeo and Juliet

The Extremities of Youth

Brave Spirits Theatre, Atlas Performing Arts Center Lab Theatre II, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, June 13, 2013, side, front row
Directed by Victoria Reinsel

Sitting on the floor are Romeo in white shirt, unbuttoned to the chest and white shorts, Mercutio in sunglasses, orange pants, purple print shirt and orange scarf, and Benvolio, also weareing sunglasses in a blue striped hoodie and shin-length pants
From left, Romeo (Brandon Michael Cater), Mercutio (Danny Cackley), and Benvolio (Connor J. Hogan) watch Nurse come on stage in the Brave Spirits' production of Romeo and Juliet. Below, Juliet (Charlene V. Smith) hears the news of Romeo's marriage plans from Nurse (Jessica Aimone). Photos by Kevin Hollenbeck, Brave Spirits.

Many directors have found that by casting real youths to play the youngsters in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet they can more effectively tap into the youthful exuberance inherent in the characters, though, perhaps, sacrificing mature renderings of the play's exquisite poetry. For this production, it is the director, Victoria Reinsel, who brings a bravura youthfulness to the proceedings, revealing Romeo and Juliet to be a mosh pit of colliding passions. Yet, while this is a bucking-bull ride of a production, because Reinsel is herself an actress who has displayed a master's skill with Shakespeare's verse, she keeps a tight grip on the play's Shakespearean reins.

The set, designed by Brandon Michael Cater (who also plays Romeo), is practical but poignant. At the far end of the rectangular studio theater sits a bed, and next to it a large hourglass on the bed stand. The bed does triple duty, serving as Juliet's balcony and bier as well as her bed. At each corner of the stage and midway along the sides are stands containing various blade weapons. The actors in modern clothes (no costume designer is credited) don't wear their weapons but have any blade they may need readily at hand. The exception is Juliet, who has her dagger stuck in her hair clip.

Bed and blades—sex and violence pretty much encompass every thought of the populous in fair Verona.

Despite the allegorical presence of time on the stage—and Charlene V. Smith, who speaks the Chorus and plays Juliet as well, turns the hourglass over as Chorus refers to "the two-hours' traffic of our stage"—time seems suspended in this production. Scenes segue quickly one into the next, speeches gallop apace. The whole is like the passage of a dream that chronicles several events while you sleep mere minutes. Such is the thought process of a girl at 13 and a boy at 16. Life is forever to them, their youth infinite, their mortality nothing more than a speculative moment, and yet impatience is their fatal flaw. They think they have a grasp on life when they don't even have a grip on their own emotions. They worship irony because why not? They embrace such heady ideals as honor, faith, and true love as the day's trending topics.

This young blood-borne arrogance is best exemplified in Cater's portrayal of Romeo. Cater nails the verse, proving that Romeo has plenty of good lines from the first scene on (giving the lie to those who contend Romeo is "a bad poet" up until he beds Juliet), but he speaks it with a self-knowing, ironic tone. He's a smart kid who uses his clever phrasings to keep his doofus friend Benvolio in awe and establish a fraternal bond with the cool and connected Mercutio. He's amused by his two friends; he's bemused by Juliet. As Smith's Juliet suffers a meltdown of her self-perceived dignity in the balcony scene, Cater sits on the ground, legs splayed, watching her with a smug "she's so cute" smile. Oh how he loves bewitching her; and how he loves being bewitched by her, by her beauty, and by her brainy meanderings, too. It's all so awesome to him.

So it is with Juliet, as well. Smith is a moody Juliet, given to fits of impatience and pique over the slightest annoyances, struggling with this whole growing up crap. She is a girl who literally considers marriage "an honor that I dream not of" because, heck, having a boyfriend let alone a husband hasn't seemed to cross her mind yet. At the Capulet party, she chooses first to dance with her cousin Tybalt (Luke Cieslewicz) before ending up with Paris, played by Mike McCarver, in coat, tie, and khaki shorts plus a fedora hat, as a pompous boy of privilege. His formal bearing, combined with a "you're mine" attitude from the start, is bound to be swept away when Romeo swoops in on Juliet with pretty poetry pouring through his lips and a passion as disheveled as his untucked shirt.

Is it true love? Nah. We could call it puppy love. But when you're all in to living life as if there's no tomorrow but today will last, like, forever, and you are addicted to the adrenaline rush of stirring emotions that make your heart thump and your loins quiver, you'll push the moment to its extremes: you'll marry in a moment, you'll brawl with swords, daggers, knives, and axes, you'll threaten suicide and do it, too. This is a characteristic shared by all the youth of Verona. Benvolio, who Connor J. Hogan plays in clownish fashion, ridicules everything he encounters. Tybalt, who Cieslewicz plays as a strutting jock, bears a win-at-all-cost attitude. In the portrayal of the deliciously demonic Mercutio, Danny Cackley has moves like Jagger, hips swiveling and thrusting on any phrase he can turn into a bawdy pun (which is just about every phrase he speaks), eyes blazing as he makes up the tale of Queen Mab, conjures the hiding Romeo, razzes Nurse, and challenges Tybalt. For all these kids, the moment of truth comes too late—when Mercutio realizes the scratch he's received from Tybalt really will serve, when Tybalt realizes that his skills and sense of honor are no match for a furious Romeo, when Romeo realizes that poison really does eat you from the inside, when Juliet realizes that a blade to the breast hurts like hell.

But as immature as these kids are, the adults aren't much smarter. Cieslewicz doubles as Friar Laurence and plays him as a youth minister who loves to hang out with the kids but has neither the wherewithal nor constitution to give them proper counsel. He gets as caught up in the rush of conspiratorial adventure as do Romeo and Juliet. Lord Capulet (Carlos Saldaña in a portrayal of quietly intense dignity) holds off Paris's suit until the count can earn Juliet's love and staves off Tybalt from attacking Romeo in his own home, but he lurches into what he thinks is a life-affirming act by promising Juliet in marriage to Paris two days after Tybalt's death. Then his true ego shows through as he berates his daughter for letting him down after all the care he's given her. It's all about him after all.

Nurse, though, really takes the cake. Jessica Aimone gives one of this year's standout performances in her bright red, waist-high jeggings, high heels, huge hooped earrings, and sassiness, zinging off one-liners and non sequiturs with astute timing and tone (by contrast, her portrayal of the Prince is stately authority in double-breasted tan suit and hot-pink tie). Aimone goes beyond the lines to make her Nurse such an arresting character, from the way she dives into the dancing at the Capulet's party (she matches up Mercutio's Jagger with her own Shakira) to the expressions on her face as she listens to the dialogue around her; it's clear she has no clue what good learning is. Not much over the age of 30 herself, this Nurse behaves as more of a big sister to Juliet than an authority figure—sometimes, in fact, she treats Juliet as her own play doll to be dressed and cooed over. When her great moment of truth comes, as Juliet seeks her counsel after Capulet has insisted she marry Paris, Nurse utterly fails. Aimone reveals the pathetic state of Nurse at this moment, knowing she's way in over her head, but wanting so much to comfort Juliet. Her advice to forget Romeo and marry Paris and her follow-up comments of how Romeo is "a dishclout" to him are not meant to be evil or disingenuous or even self-serving. It's simply the best she can come up with.

For all of the production's youthful rambunctiousness, it is moments such as this that resonate so much in this Romeo and Juliet, displaying Reinsel's mature handling of the text. Juliet comes on stage and lies on her bed even as the pivotal brawl is about to erupt downstage. Most productions put the interval after the two boys' deaths and Romeo's sentence of banishment; Reinsel, however, keeps the play going, moving right into the scene of Juliet learning of the catastrophe from Nurse and continuing on to Romeo in Friar Laurence's cell. Only then do we get our break (the production's second act begins with Act Three, Scene Four, the meeting of Paris with the Capulets).

Juliet in pink dress hugs Nurse from behind, Nurse in red jeggins, her legs crossed and arms clenched in a celebratory pose as they sit on Juliet's bed.This sequence keeps the play's tragic current coursing through at full throttle, and the acting heightens in these three scenes, too. During the hyperenergetic brawl (kudos to fight director Casey Kaleba), Mercutio parries a thrust from Tybalt heading right at Romeo, and in this act of saving Romeo's life does Mercutio receive the fatal hurt from under Romeo's arm. The subsequent scene between Juliet and Nurse is riveting as the women try to come to terms with the stunning turn of events, and Aimone delivers her speech that "There's no trust, no faith, no honesty in men" with such truthful clarity that we see a bitter hurt lying beneath her public demeanor. In the next scene, as Romeo bemoans his fate, Cater drops real tears on the stage, and Cieslewicz's Friar draws on a deep reserve of faith to bring Romeo back into equilibrium. Later, when Juliet seems to acquiesce to the marriage with Paris, Saldaña's Capulet can hardly contain his joy, and we get a sweet domestic moment along with Lady Capulet (Shelby Sours) and Nurse that makes their subsequent discovery of the supposedly dead Juliet truly tragic. Reinsel also condenses this "Oh woe" moment by having all three characters vocally grieving simultaneously.

Reinsel brings an intimate theatricality to the proceedings, as well. Characters interact directly with members of the audience. At Capulet's party, a bored Romeo meanders on the outskirts of the stage as the other characters (and invited members of the audience) dance; he asks my wife if the seat next to her is taken, then sits and makes disparaging observations to us before spotting Juliet. At party's end, when Juliet requires of Nurse, "Go ask his name," Nurse gets the information from a couple of patrons. Reinsel maintains the second Chorus at the start of Act Two, something I don't recall in any other production of this play I've seen, but the speech's thematically keen lines—such as the closing couplet, "But passion lends them power, time means, to meet, temp'ring extremities with extreme sweet"—fit her purposes well. Having Juliet doubling as Chorus, though, creates a bit of confusion as Smith seems to be delivering this speech as a soliloquy.

I've long held that the ultimate success of any Romeo and Juliet is whether we can unquestioningly accept the turns of fate that lead to the final tragedy. For all the intense fun and rich emotions this production delivers through the play's first four acts, Act Five is listless in execution, allowing the plot holes to gape a bit more. Furthermore, the established immaturity of all the characters results in our regarding fate as nothing more than really stupid decisions. But then comes a heart-wrenching moment at the end when Lord Capulet and Lord Montague (Nello DeBlasio) embrace. The two actors visibly extricate from their souls their characters' mutual enmity and choose to shake hands and, with an exhalation of grief, clasp each other in their arms. It's the first mature behavior we've seen all night. It's a final moment of truth.

Eric Minton
June 16, 2013

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