This is the fifth summer Randall and I have worked up a tour de Shakespeare-in-the-parks, starting when he lived in the Bay Area, where we could choose from five or six festivals within driving distance of Berkeley (try a Merchant of Venice in a Napa Valley winery, the vineyards stretching out behind the set, a bottle of the sponsoring wine helping get through casting that may include the vintner’s daughter) and more recently here in Puget Sound where two companies tour Seattle and neighboring counties.
This Romeo and Juliet, produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company's Wooden O Productions, had all the aspects of such a summer show. It was outside, the audience of about 200 seated on blankets on a grass berm semi-circling a paved area fronting a two-story building in the Seattle Center. One hopes for fair weather, and though darkly overcast and a bit chilly, the evening was dry. “Curtain” time was 6 p.m., so the production did not have to race against the dark, though cuts and lack of an intermission reduced playing time to a little over two hours. On a summer Sunday, seaplanes flew off Lake Union for a tourist view of the city, and of course the Seattle Center, Space Needle and all, is a necessary point of interest (observe the people in the Needle observing the people in the float plane), so I lost about thirty lines to engine noise. Less obtrusive, but more distracting, were the seagulls which flew low over the set, one of which perched on a nearby sign and commented for about five minutes (critics, critics everywhere). I was especially interested in a crow onstage chez Capulet, remembering that when I posted the history of A Midsummer Night’s Dream productions, I mentioned the nineteenth century had reached for natural authenticity in the forest scenes by loosing 50 live rabbits on stage, so I wondered if the director introduced the crow as an omen of tragedy, but he (the crow) flew away before the scene ended.
As the audience gathered, some with picnics, we could contemplate the set. Shakespeare in the park must have minimal sets, suitable to be loaded in a van and carted to another park in the next county by the next afternoon. The Romeo set was scruffy, an ill-fitted two-story façade stage right with a couple of doors or windows with torn curtains. There was a substantial balcony. Stage left was another façade fronted by what appeared to be a pile of garbage, and the gap between the facades had a traffic control gate in blue and white attached to a control box with a UN emblem. Behind was a large white tent. Both sets were dirty streaked yellow with bullet holes. “This set is crappy,” I thought.
[Contextual aside: I know Romeo and Juliet really well, having taught it and recently been immersed in it by The Will Shakespeare Experience. Also in the previous two weeks, at Ashland, Oregon, I had seen nine plays, four of them Shakespeare, by a company with 63 Equity actors and an operating budget of $24 million, including some lavish dressing of sets and costumes.]
The play opened with soldiers clad in camouflage, bearing rifles and side arms, a recording of jets muffling the prologue, running through the audience to hassle two guys I assumed were Sampson and Gregory dressed in arabic tunics. I’m afraid my knowledge of the play tuned my ear to listen for cuts, so all the risqué jokes and the exposition about the feud from these swanking servants was lost. There was some physical fighting, Tybalt’s brief challenge to an armed Benvolio (or Benvolia, given the part went to an actress), until Prince Escalus, in military uniform, declares “If ever you disturb our streets again/ Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.” But soon he worried about his son Romeo. And thus the play unfolded, with Prince Montague, with all Capulet’s lines rolled into Lady Capulet’s, and later Friar John and his donkey gone entirely.
But I began to have affection this production. The Nurse (Julie Jamieson) had a light touch, a sweet smile, and her advice to Juliet to go ahead and marry Paris was offered with an emotional concern as the only possible solution for Juliet’s tragic dilemma, so when Juliet curses her, “Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!” I felt compassion rather than my usual smug satisfaction that the Nurse got what she deserved.
Friar Lawrence (John Farrage), in what appeared to be a Greek Orthodox robe, was perfectly orchestrated as mature, often bemused, perspective on young love. Mercutio (Taylor Maxwell) was hugely energetic, loud, arrogant, swigging from a flask, everything one might expect/scorn of a young soldier in a combat zone. Romeo (Michael Place) had good growth and modulation, even if his Petrarchan introduction and almost all mention of Rosaline were cut. Juliet was a little light and inexperienced, and given the limits of community theatre I can overlook the County Paris (Trick Danneker) somehow reminding me of a cross between Archie and Jughead, until he had a choreographed fight, fists and knives, with Romeo in the Capulet tomb. It wasn’t Ashland, but I have seen worse (a Macbeth in Harrogate, England, that provoked laughter), and I shifted from wondering if we had outgrown Shakespeare on the grass to a fair appreciation of the company.
Did I call Mercutio “a young soldier in a combat zone”? After the show, the actors pass among the audience with hats, and Randall asked Lady Capulet where they had set the play—Iraq? Bosnia? Israel?—and she said they had tried to keep it ambiguous so it would not be reduced to a narrow political statement. I was—English schoolboyism alert—gobsmacked. I had sat for 2 ¼ hours, leaning into the characters, the lines, the acting, and the penny never dropped that there really were no Capulets and Monagues, but a resentful native population and an arrogant occupying military force, a UN force at that. And suddenly it all made sense; how could I have been so dumb? This clears up the murkiness of “ancient grudge.” It even adds a suggestion of miscegenation to Romeo and Juliet. The visual information and text cuts did not guide me, because my mind insisted I was looking at Montagues and Capulets, and I was prepared to attribute my confusion to inadequacies of an unAshland company.
But this vision of an occupying military force is interesting. I’m not going to try to catch another performance now I “get it,” and I’m not sure it would really lead me into new understanding of Shakespeare’s play, yet I think the star of this production is director George Mount who showed the audience—except for too dense Gil—a different way of looking at Romeo and Juliet.
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