There’s a line of thought often quoted by students of Shakespeare. When an actor is mature enough to fully understand the emotions of either Romeo and Juliet, the teenage lovers of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, they are too old to play them. Which is why, outside of Zeffirelli’s ‘68 film version, and that cacophony of MTV-inspired noise directed by Baz Luhrmann in ‘96 where teenagers were used, you’ll generally see actors of an older generation portraying the young, title characters.
As with most Shakespearean productions, there’s often a certain amount of willingness on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief in order to believe (and thereby, enjoy) something that is not true. Casting Kyle Sorrell as Romeo and Sasha Wilson as Juliet, both of whom are clearly no longer in their teens, may initially raise an eyebrow, particularly in the case of Juliet who here, by her obvious maturity while carrying the assuredness of someone in command, would hardly require a family nurse (Jodi Weiss). But in a production where both time and a sense of real-life setting are suspended, accepting Sorrell and Wilson as the tragic teens requires little effort, particularly when they are portrayed as well as they are here in director Patrick Walsh’s exciting new Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production in Mesa.
Because of the lack of sets or an author’s direction, Elizabethan audiences went to London’s Globe to hear Shakespeare as much as to see the play, which is why as an author, Shakespeare often quoted the time of day, the feel of temperature, and the constant referral to individual names. A play by William Shakespeare is the easiest of works to adapt for radio; so little tweaking required. In fact, Romeo and Juliet’s earliest recorded critic, Samuel Pepys, declared the play to be, “The worst that I have ever heard in my life.” But today, for many, Elizabethan English can be a chore. No matter how hard some try to by-pass the ebb and flow of a dated language and lose themselves in Shakespeare’s rhythmical patterns, lengthy declarations from overly verbose characters can often break the spell. However, something interesting occurs when hearing much of this sixteenth century dialog in Walsh’s production, particularly during the exchanges between Sorrell and Wilson (who adapted Shakespeare’s text and made some trims). The dialog may be Elizabethan but the tone and rhythm are decidedly modern. The end result is not only playful, the delivery seems to lose its historic quality and comes across as timeless.
Walsh sets his play on what appears as a ragged, opened-space design, where the multiple layers of a cracked earth seem to be the result of a natural disaster. Imagine Verona’s town square hit by an earthquake and you’ll get the idea. A young man in a tux and a somewhat disheveled appearance (Ben Vining) staggers onto the stage, looking as though he might have survived an all-nighter after the prom. After perusing his surroundings, he takes his position stage right, seated behind a music stand. He’s a cellist, and throughout will effectively add a melancholy sound to the proceedings, adding audio effects for atmosphere as well as music.
There are several directorial choices that add a full flavor of richness to the production. A fight scene is portrayed in slow-motion, with lighting that bathes the stage in a dramatic red, resulting with something that is ultimately devastating. The use of puppets during the ballroom scene effectively fills the stage, giving the feel of a larger cast when the numbers are, in reality, reduced. Plus, as written in Shakespeare’s text, when Romeo talks to himself of love, the imagery created was always characteristic of sonnets. In this production, as Sorrell quotes Romeo, he accompanies himself on a guitar, echoing a present-day, folk/pop music sound. For a brief moment, he’s the James Taylor of Verona, and it fits perfectly well.
When Romeo and Juliet was first performed at the Globe, with the absence of sets and props, much imagination of time and place was required on the part of the audience. Yet with the famous balcony scene, things were more literal. The actor playing Juliet would speak directly from the theatre’s first balcony level, surrounded by a paying audience. Romeo would call across the heads of the ground level standing audience to his Juliet, creating a real sense of distance between them. In SSC’s production, imagination is required. There is no balcony, just an upper layer of flat rock from which Juliet stands when questioning Romeo’s name and wishing he would swear to be her love. Here, Romeo is just feet away, hiding, listening, but again, like much invention used throughout the production with a supporting cast that fully embrace their characters with the passion, and more importantly, the humor required, the moment, as with Sorrell’s guitar playing, works.
Sasha Wilson’s adaptation is a good one. With cuts and slight alterations, it’s tightened the play. Circumstances move fast, never giving an opportunity for events or interest to wane. And even though the trimming shortens the number of actors required for the cast as well as the play’s overall length, nothing feels lost. It was always interesting that the play’s announcer, Chorus (Alexis Baigue) who sets the scene during the opening moments, talks of the tragedy we’re about to see as being two hours in length. Even with cuts, this new SSC production runs at least thirty minutes more. Perhaps in Shakespeare’s day, actors delivered lines at double-speed.
Romeo and Juliet continues at the Virginia Piper Repertory Theater, Mesa Arts Center until January 27
Pictures Courtesy of Laura Durant of Durant Photography