Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Romeo and Juliet - Performance Log (July 2008)

Romeo and Juliet
Directed by George Mount
Seattle Shakespeare Company's Wooden O Productions
Fisher Pavilion, Seattle Center
Seattle, WA
July 27, 2008

1. Feud shortage in war-torn Verona. When it comes to re-imagining Romeo and Juliet, it seems like you can't do the feud thing. Does anyone have feuds anymore? Either way, people thinking of Appalachian hillbillies arguing over inter-family marriage or ownership of a pig or whatever hardly provides logical entry into Shakespeare's tragedy; it's a bit silly. We want a more realistic conflict, something that would really drive the two sides, the Montagues and the Capulets, apart. Racial bigotry; that's been done. Religious animosity; done. So, with a nod to modernization and realistic enmity, the Seattle Shakespeare Company's Wooden O Productions (an unwieldy company name that had to result from a merger) production of Romeo and Juliet gives us war – in an unnamed war-torn country (think Iraq or the Balkans), the Capulets are the civilian population at odds with an occupying military force (Montagues), in this case a squadron of U.N. peacekeepers.

The set design establishes the vision: entrances to two ravaged buildings are separated by a blue and white U.N. checkpoint barrier. Both buildings look burned out and pockmarked by shrapnel or bullets, rubble strewn in front of them. Costume design follows suit – the Montague side dresses in camouflage and olive drab with blue U.N. berets; the Capulets in civilian clothes reminiscent of some middle-eastern or Aegean culture. (I had a brief discussion with Amy Fleetwood, who played Lady Capulet, about where Wooden O was setting the production. "We're not sure," she said. Nor is it clear what religion the civilians are practicing. Fleetwood indicated that the ambiguity was intentional.)

This setting demands a very interesting character/casting approach. The ostensible authority in Romeo and Juliet is Prince Escalus, but he's neutral. If you have a military unit trying to maintain control over a local citizenry rife with insurgent opposition, the Prince, as a local, would naturally be in the Capulet camp, probably opposed to the military. That doesn't really fit his lines. Or the situation. So director George Mount combines the Montague/Prince characters, making them one. Now "Prince" Montague (played by David Quicksall) is in charge but attached to the military side, and in the opening scene when two Capulet servants get in a tiff with armed peacekeeping soldiers and the imbroglio is escalated by Tybalt, it makes perfect sense when a general shows up to demand that everyone stand down. There are creaks – Escalus's line about "neighbor-stained steel" fails to reflect a battle between locals and outsiders, but what the heck. It's tougher at the end, when the Prince shows up to castigate both the Montagues and the Capulets ("all are punished!"), then makes an awkward transition that reminds us that he IS a Montague and father of Romeo.

2. All the world's a stage. I felt a deeper consequence to the production vision, though, than this particular melding of characters. In the play, the feud between Capulets and Montagues is personal, an "ancient grudge" (a line edited out of Wooden O's brief prologue) between two families. Mount's choice makes the conflict more impersonal, more intransigent. In this case there is no ancient grudge, only an imposed will on one side and a legitimate fury on the other. Shakespeare's play suggests love, or the tragic aftermath of Romeo and Juliet's, can heal the festering wounds of a private feud. Wooden O suggests this love can heal the wounds of savage international politics. Really? Perhaps what we need in Iraq is a swinging singles Saturday, when the daughters of Muqtada al-Sadr's followers can date American servicemen. Surely love will follow, then intense anger, and no doubt peace will reign. (Let's call General Petraeus and set this up.)

Hey, it's just a story.

3. This man's army. I loved Mercutio (Taylor Maxwell) as a grunt. The swagger, the self-confidence, the sardonic humor in the face of death; there's a lot of Mercutio that matches up well with our image of the soldier. Mount casts Kate Parker as Benvolio, and she's good, easy with the language, earnest in the right spots. This casting calls attention to the modern co-ed army and adds a layer to the difference between Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio. (Benvolio translates as "well-wisher" or "peacemaker," not only a good description of Benvolio's frequent position in the play, but one that fits nicely with the nurturing role we associate with women.) I think it might have emphasized the intensity of the conflict, though, if all the U.N. (Montague) forces had been played by males. Still, the discomfort of having a soldier secretly dating a 13-year-old townie is already in place, especially in light of the indictment of PFC Steven Green for the 2006 rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, for which federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

I've alluded to real-world parallels to Mount's vision for Romeo and Juliet a number of times now. Curiously, they all occurred to me after the fact, not during the production. Mount's is a production content to make its points subtlely; it is neither polemic nor propaganda, a result in part of the ambiguous setting. There are moments during which the production is uneven, when moments are rushed through without fully realizing their own implications, when actors don't quite raise themselves up to the production's bar, when design choices are interfered with by Shakespeare's text. But in the end, this Romeo and Juliet is one I'll probably remember because it attempted, often successfully, to place the story on a world stage.

Logged by Randall

Picture: Hana Lass as Juliet, John Farage as Friar Laurence, Michael Place as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.

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