It is a familiar scene. A late night party, everyone is having a good time, the music is loud, and people are laughing. Then, there is that moment where everyone slowly realizes that something has gone terribly wrong. A fight has broken out, or someone has had too much to drink. Slowly everyone turns. Someone takes out their cellphone to document the event. Sirens sound. This is the feeling I was left with after this dark, passionate and stylized production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Things are happening, it’s funny, it’s fast, it’s a little raw, everyone is dancing, it’s sexy, and then things start to get dark.
Grantham Coleman and Jordan Dean in Romeo and Juliet at Actors Theatre. Photo by Alan Simons.
Tony Speciale’s take on Romeo and Juliet is fresh, timely, and it moves like a thriller. The play opens on a pool side in a new-age style mansion similar to a modern Beverly Hills. Two girls in bikinis holding cellphones remind us to turn ours off. There is a pool, a real pool, that the characters swim in. It’s the home of the Capulets – wealthy socialites of Verona. The setting is bright, shiny and a little plastic.
We meet Romeo (Grantham Coleman), a young romantic, who broods around with a backpack slung over his shoulder. The Romeo of this production is sweet and boyish at first and then turns absolutely ill with love and grief by the end. He sees Juliet, of course, and the connection is instant. Juliet is played by Elvy Yost as smart, fierce and a little enigmatic. The relationship quickly begins to feel like a chemical addiction more than a sweet romance. The two are desperate for one another, from Juliet furiously demanding her sleeping potion from Friar Lawrence (Brendan Averett), to Romeo lying banished on the floor of the friar’s cell writhing in emotional agony. These characters feel like real teenagers – naïve, without perspective, and in love.
As the lovers spiral downward, Speciale shifts seamlessly from the humorous lightness of house parties to the dark reality of what lives beyond clean mansion walls and pool sides. He does this through performance as well as lighting and costume. Romeo comes upon the apothecary who wears a beany and scratches himself. He says, “I pay your poverty,” and the word poverty comes alive. Lord Capulet (Bruce McKenzie) becomes abusive and tyrannical towards his daughter and to her nurse (Myra Lucretia Taylor). snarling at her, “Peace, you mumbling fool.” You find yourself shocked that these people talk to one another so viciously. But the actors are skillful enough to take the characters to these extreme emotional states. Lines that may have been thrown away in other productions are used as finely tuned weapons in this one.
In terms of the production, Speciale uses movement and music in the piece to a wonderful theatrical effect. The fight scenes between the warring families of Capulets and Montagues are precisely choreographed. The characters draw knives and slice at each other. The use of slow motion and video highlight the tension of these fights, which may otherwise feel showy or clunky. In one scene, the prince enters and fires a gun, and the whole brawling group hits the floor in one graceful motion. These choreographed moments add to the tension and the theatricality of the event and never detract from it. Speciale wisely tones down these effects during the love scenes between Romeo and Juliet, which are beautiful, slow and simple. The stillness is a nice contrast to the opulent loud parties and violence.
There were times during the play when I had to catch up to the language – when what was going on in the text disconnected slightly from what was going on up on stage. This will happen in a modernized production. But the truths in the play are there, and the story is told fully. Nothing about the production feels indulgent for its own sake, but all is purposeful and precise. I came out of the theater a little exhausted but feeling as though I had seen Romeo and Juliet for the first time. What a crazy play, and what bizarre people. The director skillfully smoothes over any disconnects and makes the play hum with new life.
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