As a busy man who likes to see a lot of theater, I might ask two questions about the current production of Romeo and Juliet at the American Shakespeare Center: why should I see that play again, and why should I drive all the way to Staunton to see this production?
The first question is easy to answer: I should see the play because it tells a story that seems true. Two people who are not supposed to fall in love go ahead and fall in love anyway, hard, for no apparent reason — is there ever a reason? Then they do and say and think and feel things that break the rules and cross the boundaries of the world they live in. Those things bring them joy and end their lives, which were defined by those boundaries, as is mine.
“A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents,” says Friar Lawrence.
I go see Romeo and Juliet again because I like to ask what power that might be. Fate? Convention? Reason? And if we contradict it, must we die? I ask those questions in a loud voice, with my muscles flexed. Those boundaries are stupid, after all, so why observe them?
Because they tell us the difference between daisies and roses, nightingales and larks, even women and men, which are not the same by any other name. It matters what we call them.
At first I didn’t think director Jim Warren was going to call them anything. He told the actors that he wanted the production “to remind us all what it was like to fall in love for the first time, or the last time, or to show us what we have in front of us if we haven’t yet fallen in love.” He does that with song, dance, violence, great performances, and gorgeous language. By the time a long blast from an air horn breaks up the first street brawl, I’m breathing like I did when I first fell in love.
And with humor. “This ‘tragedy’ has the funniest and bawdiest first half in all of Shakespeare,” he reminds the actors. “Part of our job is letting the humor breathe.” His decision to cast Benjamin Curns as Juliet’s nurse and Allison Glenzer as Friar Lawrence would seem to answer that intent.
But I wonder.
The first hour of this play does shake the house with laughter. Like most ASC productions, this one uses music to great comic effect, especially during Capulet’s ball, when Mercutio and Benvolio join the band to avoid Tybalt’s wrath. Gregory Jon Phelps plays Mercutio with the kind of reckless charisma I loved and envied in the guys I wanted to become when I was in high school. He bridges the gap between Shakespeare’s era and mine by using voices and facial expressions I might have used myself when I was sixteen, if I’d had his wit and nerve. Phleps’s treatment of Mercutio’s famous Queen Mab speech is a great example of making a character’s language say more than I thought it could.
And Curns’s Nurse is certainly the funniest transgender work I’ve ever seen. He’s a big man, both in body and in aura. You expect to see him playing Julius Ceasar, Richard III, Iago, Benedick, or Macbeth, not a wet nurse. Costume designer Erin West has made him an adorable turquoise dress with dark swirls and a wide black belt that cinches in his waist and pooches out his breasts and makes the skirt all flouncy so his butt does not look fat. And peg-heeled shoes like cool girls at my school wear sometimes — I bet they don’t even hurt his feet! Curns can generate tremendous volume in the low bass register, so when he boosts his voice into the tenor range and recounts to Juliet in great detail the story of how he weaned her from his breast by rubbing wormwood on his nipples so she wouldn’t like their flavor anymore, the idea of his nursing her is so outrageous that lovely dainty Tracie Thomason, whom he dwarfs, must turn toward the audience and laugh so long that a laguna opens in the dialog. Curns and Lee Fitzpatrick, who plays Lady Capulet, have to wait for Juliet to get a grip and play her role again.
Thomason is a beautiful woman whose face alone would hold our attention, but her Juliet is also smart enough to understand the powers that have thwarted her intents and brave enough to bite her thumb at them. Her “come night, come Romeo, come night” speech in Act III sounds so hungry that you feel like maybe everyone should slip out of the theater before Romeo arrives, because it seems unlikely that she’ll let him keep his clothes on very long. “Oh, I have bought the mansion of a love but not possessed it,” she moans, “and though I am sold not yet enjoyed.” How do I earn money I can spend like that?
Newcomer Dylan Paul exudes the sort of energy one finds in young men whose own prowess still surprises them. It’s as if his good looks and his charm have recently arrived by UPS, blessings which he didn’t send for but believes he should employ since they have come into his care, which gives him a sort of gravitas that neither of his buddies has. When he lashes out at Friar Lawrence for teasing him about his jump from Rosaline to Juliet, we remember that no love is frivolous if you have fallen into it.
Which gets back to stupid boundaries and the kind of questions that I like to ask: do I still have to live by rules about who I’m supposed to love? How I’m supposed to dress? What kind of work I’m supposed to do? Curns’s nurse is very funny, but Friar Lawrence isn’t supposed to make me laugh, so why did Warren cast a woman in that role? To make me wonder why we laugh so hard at Curns? We don’t laugh in the second half. After Tybalt dies, the nurse gets serious, and Curns plays her just as Glenzer would, or any other woman, as if that boundary had been crossed, perhaps even erased.
Warren’s touch is far too delicate to undermine the questions in this play with answers — and delicate enough to make me leave the theater with my muscles flexed, looking for the powers that have thwarted our intents. Where are they? Let me at ‘em!
And I thought I knew what was going to happen in this play.
Romeo and Juliet continues at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia through November 30. For tickets, call 877-682-4236, or order online.
Two hours with one intermission.
Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jim Warren. Featuring Tracie Thomason, Dylan Paul, Benjamin Curns, Gregory Jon Phelps, Allison Glenzer, René Thornton Jr., John Harrell, Chris Johnston, Tim Sailer, and Josh Innerst. Costume Design: Erin M. West. Fight Director: Benjamin Curns. Choreographer: Stephanie Holladay Earl. Produced by the American Shakespeare Center. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.