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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
Romeo and Juliet
After dinner, co-hosts Tony and Ali do the casting, claiming the roles of Capulet and Juliet for themselves and assigning the remaining parts to their guests. As the evening proceeds, the magic of theater takes hold, and these friends wholly surrender to the events in Shakespeare’s first great tragedy.
At first blush this framing device might seem a tad gimmicky, but as a program note by text coach Ian Hersey points out, Stew (of Passing Strange fame) is faithfully following the Bard’s lead with his introduction. Shakespeare did in fact use a framing device (the Christopher Sly introduction) “to ease us into his Taming of the Shrew.” In short, Stew’s own lead-in echoes the Bard’s creative impulses throughout his playwriting career.
This new interpretation will not prevent you from following the play's deeper meanings. From the opening scene on the patio, you can sense the anarchic energy of the original bleeding into this version. There’s the forced chumminess between architect-host Tony and the poet Will as they arrogantly brag about their social and professional success. Unsurprisingly, the veneer of their good manners wears off in a hurry.
Will is the first to puncture the genteel atmosphere with a bawdy pun about his host’s new patio (‘You give great deck”). Tony responds with a boasting “Spent half a million dollars on this deck.) A beat later, Rachael argues with David over who’s reading the part of Tybalt (“If anyone’s gonna pick a fight with Romeo it’s gonna be me.”) The adaptation starts out like a comedy but quickly turns the corner into tragedy. These characters might not be dressed in tights and doublets (costumes by Tilly Grimes) but their nouveau riche mindset echoes their Elizabethan counterparts.
Curiously, this stage seems joined at the hip to the new film Private Romeo, which opened in movie theaters last February. This film used the premise of high school cadets studying Romeo and Juliet for their English class. When most of the adult faculty and cadets left for a remote military exercise one weekend, a few cadets, largely unsupervised, decide to read scenes from the play. Much like the dinner guests in Shakespeare on the Sound’s stage production, the cadets become altogether consumed by the play’s haunting events. Granted, Private Romeo was more intent on raising the public’s consciousness about gay issues in the wake of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy. But both productions are equally focused on the necessity of public accountability whether social or political.
Much of the charm of the current production lies in its metatheatrical touches. All the performers on stage are acting as if they are “dinner guests” who are having a go at the play’s characters at their 12th Annual Birthday Play Reading. When the would-be actors soon fall into their tragic parts, hook, line, and sinker, you can’t help but feel the power of Shakespeare’s work. And I can't think of a better place to witness this collective metamorphosis than at an open-air theater in sight of real yachts and sailboats anchored on the sound.
Most of the action unfolds on the spacious patio in front of a (real) beach house. Laura Jellinek’s curvy set is comprised of varnished wood panels, a sunken swimming pool, and abstract-styled patio furniture. It is hardly a static set, as its expansiveness and wavy shapes incredibly adapt themselves to being a dance hall, a bedroom, Capulet’s vault, and more. The play’s action often spills off the stage to the sprawling lawn (expect performers to be standing next to your picnic blanket or chair!), where Romeo and his friends are very likely to appear and speak their lines on raised platforms. The production seamlessly lets you drift into the world of this ill-fated tragedy.
There are some flaws such as Settle’s rather lackluster staging of the famous Balcony Scene. Instead of Romeo dramatically gazing up at Juliet, he is simply separated from her by a ramped structure. Instead of releasing the poignant poetry of their speeches this visual tableau tends to mute its inherent power. Settle, who later uses the beach house’s rooftop to good effect, misses an opportunity to highlight this most tender love scene.
While the Balcony Scene is a fizzle, the ensemble’s acting is sparkling. It would be unfair to single out any one performer, but a few interpretations of key characters are non-conventional, and bring out fresh nuances. Most notably there's David Cale’s Friar Laurence who is far more hip than most Friars. In fact, when Friar John is introduced late in the play (as a disembodied voice),Friar Laurence ads a post-modern flavor by calling him on his cell phone. Another surprise comes from Chinasa Ogbuagu who does the Nurse in a very sassy and chic manner. Damian Lemar Hudson takes on double-duty as the Singer and Paris, and shows himself to be both a powerhouse singer as well as an able performer.
Looking back at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the New York Armory last summer, I recall its meticulous delivery of the Bard’s language. Those going to Shakespeare on the Sound’s presentation this summer are more likely to remember its contemporary set-up, the sustained ingenuity, Settle's clear-eyed direction and the abundance of soulful music and lyrics by Stew & Heidi Rodewald.