“Wise and slow; they stumble that run fast.”
It’s odd that the most poignant advice in “Romeo & Juliet” comes from the Friar, the adult who consistently and most-thuddingly betrays the teenagers in the play. (Who advises a 13 year old girl to take a sleeping potion to fake her own death?)
“Romeo & Juliet” opens with a street brawl, but in Tony Speciale’s contemporary production, the fight is staged poolside with young men in plaid shorts and cocked baseball caps pummeling each other while bikini-clad girls record the violence on their iPhones.
Speciale, a native of Louisville, a graduate of the YPAS program and a member of the 2008-09 Actors Theatre Actor/Intern Company, has returned to his hometown to direct the play that opens the 2012-13 season at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
In his programme notes, Speciale says that “at first glance, you might think you are enjoying a leisurely July afternoon in a neighbor’s back yard.”
Scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman clearly didn’t have Louisville in mind when he designed the gorgeous, stark, white modern and glass-enclosed set; no one in this city has neighbors with that kind of backyard.
But if you’ve spent any time on social media over the past month, you’ll know that a hallmark of the “Romeo & Juliet” set is the inclusion of a swimming pool – not the illusion of a swimming pool, but an actual, utilized pool.
One of the many reasons “Romeo & Juliet” remains one of the most produced plays despite it being hundreds of years old is that the themes and even much of the language remains relevant and easily-accessible.
It’s a play about love, bullying, drugs, abuse, suicide, parental neglect, disaffected youth and rebellion. It’s a play about teenagers.
And what we see in Act I of this production is teen culture at its stereotyped worst. It’s Jersey Shore and the Kardashians do Shakespeare. And that’s not a knock. It’s clearly intentional. Act I is full of techo and hip-hop, bright colors and lights, crude sexuality and general debauchery.
That being said, the packed opening night house reacted audibly to some of the more risque elements of the script, and it made me wonder who taught them “Romeo & Juliet” when they were in high school.
Speciale didn’t take liberties to make the play more suggestive; it’s all there in Shakespeare’s play. All that bravado talk about swords?… they’re not talking about actual swords.
There are, though, some truly stunning dramatic moments in Act 1: a single beachball falls from the rafters into the pool (to be eventually followed by dozens) to herald the beginning of the “ball” scene; Juliet plunges into the pool and appears at the edge, her pixie haircut and demur one-piece a stark, beautiful contrast to the scantily-clothed women we’ve seen up until that point.
It is Juliet, played by Elvy Yost, who played Belle and Fred’s Wife in Actors’ 2009 performance of ”A Christmas Carol,” who most successfully drives home that this is a play about mere teenagers. At first Yost’s performance comes off as tentative and reserved, but as the play progresses and more depth is added to her character, it becomes clear that this tentativeness is meant to be read as insecure childishness.
Coupled with her powerful crying jags and her impetuous scenes with her parents and the nurse, Yost propels Juliet beyond the stereotypes and into a remarkable portrayal of a thirteen-year old girl in situation that is far beyond her years.
One of the knocks against “Romeo & Juliet” as a play is that it is a tragedy in every sense of the word. Emotions are heightened to near melodrama. Let’s not forget that when we first meet Romeo, he’s already so crushingly in love with someone-who-is-not-Juliet (Rosaline) that he’s unable to eat or sleep and has become estranged from his family and friends. The play is over-the-top from moment one.
Taking cues from the script alone, a director could be compelled to push the play into over-the-topness. And indeed, this production often strays into “too much.” The apothecary scene, for example, includes some beautiful sleight-of-hand magic, but why?
Likewise Juliet’s death (I suppose I should have prefaced that with the requisite “spoiler alert”) is staged using the scrim and shadow to lovely effect, but the effect goes on too long and deadens the tragedy a bit.
Myra Lucretia Taylor, who plays the Nurse, is brilliant and steals every scene she’s in. When she calls Mercutio a “scurvy knave,” it feels like a contemporary insult.
The Ladies Montague and Capulet (Yvette Gainer and Amy Morse) also put in stunningly good performances.
But it was Lord Capulet (Bruce McKensie) who commanded the stage; his Nick Nolte-like performance as Juliet’s dad was both hideous and delightful. There was no surer sign that Juliet was a product of neglected parenting than when he, during the ball scene, stripped to his skivvies and jumped into the pool to mack on one of the young women in attendance.
There’s so much that is lovely in this production. But a lighter hand, especially in Act I, might have softened the edge of the Jersey Shore-stereotype. Speciale uses multi-media elements to varying degrees of success.
But it’s the actors and the scenic design that carry the show.
About Melissa Chipman: Melissa Chipman is Louisville-based jouralist and editor who recently made a career change after 13 years of teaching at elite private schools in Louisville and New Orleans. Chipman has a BA in English from Columbia College of Columbia University in New York City and an MA in English from the University of New Orleans.