Orange-Scented Rose

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When you’ve been going to the theater in Chicago as long as I have, you learn to embrace the unexpected in a The Hypocrites production, especially one from founding Artistic Director Sean Graney.  And in Graney’s distinctive, refreshing take on that most sturdy of theatrical warhorses, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, inexplicably yet aptly retitled Romeo Juliet, the unexpected can be precious (tea with the cast on picnic tables with gingham tablecloths and cutout hearts before the performance even begins) or  it can be painfully hipster-ish (the use of vinyl records to play an eclectic musical score) or it can be sublime (audience members are asked to peel and eat an orange during the famous balcony scene, a generous nod to a similar practice among audiences at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time).  What is most unexpected though in my mind is the fact that Graney and his formidable, hard-working cast of four has given a fresh, inspiring take on a play that all of us think we know so well that its impact is about as potent and as insightful as a bad Saturday Night Live skit.

Yes, you read that right.  Romeo Juliet has a cast of four, so other than Romeo, charmingly played by Walter Briggs as a laidback, somewhat clueless, quite self-involved hunk who won’t feel out-of-place in a Lincoln Park gym, everyone else doubles-up and many other characters are eliminated all together (Lindsay Gavel is a surprisingly sultry Juliet and an engagingly confident Tybalt; Tien Doman is hilarious yet always-believable both as an acid-tongued Nurse and an effeminate Paris; Zeke Sulkes is a nuanced Mercutio, desiring an unrequited bromance with Romeo, and a pompous Lord Capulet).  And yes, Graney has shortened the text to a breezy 80 minutes, and incorporated pieces from Felice Romani’s libretto for the 1830 opera, I Capuleti e I Montecchi. Actually, there are some parts of the show I don’t really know whether they came from Shakespeare, Romani, or Graney (hmmm, the Nurse and Mercutio making out and making snarky comments while Romeo and Juliet plot to leave Verona feels more Graney quirkiness than Bellini opera).  But it ultimately doesn’t matter – Romeo Juliet captures the self-absorption and impermanence of youth and the tragedy of immaturity much better than other productions I’ve seen that has the sweep, grandeur, scale and running time length of the original Shakespearian play.

Romeo Juliet also has a contemporary resonance that many other faithfully stilted productions don’t have.  And maybe it’s because Graney brings a light and good-natured irreverence (the orange peeling and eating is wonderfully integrated into the performance) yet understands and respects the tragic qualities of the material (the staging of the tomb scene in near darkness is appropriately heartbreaking).  Maybe because Briggs, Gavel, Doman, and Sulkes feel so contemporary and relatable like your neighbors down the hall (they perform in their street clothes and barefoot and deliver their lines naturally and unfussily) yet have an exceptional command of the cadences and inflections that form the rich, enveloping backbone of Shakespeare’s language.  Maybe because that language, despite the use of “hey” and other colloquialisms, despite the abbreviation, despite the sometimes distracting theatricality (I still can’t figure out why the playing space is a circus-like tent with shag carpeting), comes across strong, powerful, and memorable in the careful hands of a thoughtful director and cast.

I think some of the depth that a longer production with some of the other characters intact (Benvolio, where art thou?) can bring is lost.  The characterizations, to some degree, feel like a highlights reel. Also, maybe because of the short duration and the fast pacing, some of the intriguing commentary on war and conflict that Shakespeare writes about in the blood feud of the Montaguts and the Capulets, and which director Gail Edwards so potently teased out in the superb recent production at Chicago Shakespeare, isn’t there – this is a couple that doesn’t really fully interact with the world.  But this is also a Romeo and Juliet that is accessible, intriguing, creative, and, dare I say it, fun, a show that audiences would want to go to, versus a show like some other Shakespeare productions in the city that they are going to be dragged into kicking and screaming.

Oranges, mint tea, Phil Collins on vinyl? Get thee to Romeo Juliet, playing at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division, until July 1.

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