Rose By Any Other Name

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When I saw Chicago Shakespeare was opening its 2010-2011 season with Romeo and Juliet, I audibly groaned.  I need another Romeo and Juliet as much as I need another tetanus shot in the derriere. But I’ve heard of Australian director Gale Edwards, and more specifically about her acclaimed Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC a couple of years back, so I thought maybe this poke in the bum would be worth checking out.  And am I glad I did.  As my blog readers know, I have a pretty ambivalent view towards Chicago Shakespeare, which, despite its massive financial resources and organizational infrastructure, can still put on unqualified stinkers like Cymbeline and Richard III that infuriatingly reinforce the misguided audience perception that Shakespearean plays are unappealing to a demographic younger than retirement community age, side by side with dazzlers like Twelfth Night.  Watching Edwards’ energetic, inspired, strongly visionary Romeo and Juliet, though, made me, for the first time in years, want to sign up for a subscription.  If Chicago Shakespeare Artistic Director Barbara Gaines continues to bring forceful yet thoughtful directors like Edwards to Navy Pier, hey, I’ll gladly sign up for anything.  This Romeo and Juliet is not like your typically mushy, dewy-eyed, low-rent Franco Zeffirelli-like versions staged anywhere and everywhere.  I am very impressed with Edwards’ ballsiness in viewing this play not as a tragic love story, but more as a cautionary tale of how a world that is angry, divisive, polarized, and belligerent will always crush youthful passion.  I love the macro perspective that she takes towards this play, a perspective that resonates strongly in the world we live in right now, where tea parties mask xenophobia and religious defense propagate intolerance.  But, as importantly, Edwards’ Romeo and Juliet is fresh, contemporary, and incredibly entertaining, as all great plays should be.

Edwards’ formidable directorial vision is helped immensely by John Culbert’s evocative lighting full of frigid blues, reds, and yellows; Ana Kuzmanic’s hip, colorful, and meticulously constructed costumes; and most especially by Brian Sidney Bembridge’s gritty, urban, decaying, period-unspecific set that gives the whole production the visual feel of a film from Romania or Hungary (think Cristian Mungiu) or a Jacques Audiard movie set in the restless Paris suburbs.  Edwards talks about taking a “filmic” approach in the Directors’ Q and A that is part of the production playbill, and you can see it very clearly in the way the scenes are paced, always on the move and never lingering for effect or emphasis; the way the actors run and jump onto the stage from the aisles; and most spectacularly, in the staging of big, take-no-prisoners theatrical set-pieces.  These set pieces include the breathtaking opening brawl between the Montaguts and the Capulets (which includes a fabulous Real Housewives of Atlanta-like hairpulling fight between Lady M and Lady C) and the frenzied, seething Act One climax when an angry Prince Escalus, ruler of Verona, angrily chastises the families and exiles Romeo upon the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio. 

Of course, I don’t think this cinematic, ultra-modern take would have worked if the actors performed as if they’re in an oratorical declamation contest in an Ivy League university.  I love the fact that Edwards allows her actors to speak Shakespeare’s glorious, imaginative language naturally and authentically, with lots of accompanying 2010 sass and raunch among the younger actors.  I have never seen Shakespeare spoken and performed so much like David Mamet, or even Adam Rapp, prior to this production.  Consistent with Edwards’ vision, you are drawn to the more textured and more volatile supporting performances.  Ariel Shafir’s Mercutio and Zach Appelman’s Tybalt- both sexy, fiery, intense, and yes, with perfectly-sculpted abs!- anchor this production with showstopping performances.  When they duel to the death, you’re both entranced and panting.  Shafir particularly plays with Mercutio’s ambivalent sexuality and confidently, sleekly prowls the stage like an International Male Leather title-holder with an unrequited crush on pure, virginal Romeo. John Judd’s volcanic Capulet and Judy Blue’s brilliantly detailed Lady Capulet (performed and costumed like a Bravo reality TV star) are exciting and riveting as well.  Ora Jones’ bawdy, earthy, lovably encouraging Nurse is so compelling that when she turns her back on Juliet, you’re shocked.  Jeff Lillico (who comes across as a more talented Zac Effron) as Romeo and Joy Farmer-Clary (impressively giddy, impetuous, and pouting) as Juliet turn in admirable turns, but you’re constantly drawn away from them and into Edwards’ overall, unapologetically different vision.  Which is fine.  Which is terrific.  Which is why we go to the theater. (Unfortunately Chris Jones in the Tribune doesn’t think so).

I’m strongly recommending Romeo and Juliet, and urge those of you who think Shakespeare is Betty White in Victorian dress speaking in verse to see it.  It’s a show, finally, at Chicago Shakespeare that is truly of the moment, which can capture the buzz and the imagination of the Twitter generation.  And I want to support this production despite what other people who are looking for traditional star-crossed lovers ho-hum interpretations might say.

Ok, people, no more fiddling around. Run to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Avenue.  Romeo and Juliet is on until November 21.

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