“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Thus ends William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which opened this weekend atf Threshold Repertory Theatre, the culmination of their annual Summer Shakespeare Workshop. And thus begins the reviewer’s unenviable task of breaking down this most famous play’s performance.
The reviewer’s task is difficult for many reasons. For example, how does one tell the actors to slow down when speaking, especially when the play already runs a whopping three hours? And how does one critique a play when, admittedly, many of the actors on stage have never before attempted to tackle the tongue-twisting verses of 17th Century England?
The story of Romeo and Juliet is as timeless as the language is archaic. One could envision a retelling of the star-crossed lovers’ tale today, in the shape of the daughter of a liberal Democrat in love with the son of a Tea Party Republican. But in the hands of directors Mike Kordek and Tommy George — both of whom also take the stage and are, as always, fun to watch — the audience is transported back in time to fair Verona. The scenery is portable and simple, with benches doubling for beds and a lovely fountain for the battle scenes. Gray Morris’s period costumes are gorgeous, replete with rich velvets and brocades (though I’d caution the ladies of the production to be wary of bra straps showing in such a small theater space — I don’t think Elizabethan women wore bras).
It’s sweet to watch Shakespeare as Shakespeare intended, set in a world where thumb-biting is one of the lowest insults in a gentleman’s repertoire. In a nod to the traditions of Shakespearean times, in which the feminine roles were played by men, we see a supporting cast of men played in drag. It’s cute, and it works for the most part. Romeo and Juliet, played by John Black and Jean Gaston, are, however, traditionally gendered.
There are standout performances throughout the show. John Bryan is a perfect Mercutio, with a Queen Mab scene to be envied by actors on larger stages. He is bigger than life, as any good Mercutio should be, and his nemesis, Tybalt (Ryan Ahlert), is well up to the task of countering him. Both actors command the stage and, as such, their fight scene is epic.
As Nurse, Maggie Borden is forceful, loving, and loyal. Charley Boyd’s Lady Capulet is elegant and graceful. Both ladies light up the stage every time they step onto it.
But this stage should belong to its Romeo and its Juliet. And it does, to a point. This is where things start to get a little tricky for this reviewer. This is where we start to talk about effort versus execution. For effort, they both deserve an A. Shakespeare is tough, and they carry the show on their shoulders and their tongues. The language is thick and tricky, and they both persevere with a tenacity and style. They play out iconic scenes without dropping a single word.
But the relationship presented between this Romeo and Juliet is more teen ’80s flick than stately Shakespearean romance. It makes sense given the character’s age (Juliet is not yet 14; Romeo is not much older). They’re giggly and silly where most actors are serious and intense. Juliet laughs through her early scenes with Romeo. It almost works, but then, sometimes it doesn’t.
To Black and Gaston I’d offer this unsolicited advice: with Shakespeare, slow down and speak the words as he wrote them. When you try to reshape iambic pentameter into cadences heard on the streets today, it feels rushed and muddled. There’s no need to force emotion when speaking these words. The words themselves are emotive enough. So slow down. Relish the words. As you do, the emotions will be there, waiting for you and the audience to find, together.
I love Shakespeare. If it were up to me, Threshold Repertory Theatre’s Summer Shakespeare Workshop would stick around for many, many years ( my vote for next summer is The Taming of the Shrew). Because here’s the thing with a workshop such as this one: when you gather together a group of actors on a stage to perform Shakespeare, some of whom have never performed Shakespeare before, sometimes you’ll have to go on effort alone. But sometimes magic will happen. Romeo and Juliet has moments of both, and I can’t wait to see what happens next year.
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