Sex and Violence and Romeo

By Geary Danihy

Purists beware.

For those who like their Shakespeare straight up with production values that hark back to Elizabethan times and the Globe Theater, “Romeo and Juliet,” which recently opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre, will give you agita.

For those of a more liberal bent who believe the Bard’s the Bard no matter how you dress him up (or down), this visceral production directed with a sure if somewhat overwrought vision by Shana Cooper should please…when it’s not exasperating.

In other words, there’s something in this “Romeo” for everyone to dislike, and a whole lot that is exciting and revelatory.

Cooper knows full well that “Romeo” is a love story, but she doesn’t want the audience to miss the fact that the lovers live in a society riven by violence and sensuality. More on this anon. Cooper is also quite aware that the original audiences for the Bard’s works were not as polite and demure as those of today, hence the actors had to capture and maintain the attention of the “groundlings” (also referred to as the “stinkards”). And what did these folks want? Well, among other things, they wanted sex, violence and comedy, often in its lowest common denominator. Just in case there are some stinkards in the audience, Cooper serves all of these wants in a vain attempt to have her “Romeo and Juliet” be all things to all people.

Most of the sensuality (such as it is) and violence in this production is provided by the young men who make up the Capulet and Montague “gangs,” rowdies who do push-ups and pull-ups at the drop of a hat, grab their privates on a regular basis, and in general horse around when they aren’t issuing challenges to their rivals. They’re dressed in contemporary garb by costume designer Leon Dobkowski, save for their party apparel, which looks like…well, punk rock meets Mardi Gras.

Right from the opening scene (the Prologue is dispensed with), Cooper has these young men, mostly MFA candidates at the Yale School of Drama, in constant motion, and the effect is, in sum, just a bit tiring. Most tiring of all is the latitude Cooper gives John Patrick Doherty to create a Mercutio who is so over the top one wonders why he wasn’t put on a leash. He japes, he gestures, he poses, prances and generally eats up the scenery, in the process, especially in his death scene, throwing away many of his lines.

When the boys are off-stage things brighten – and tighten-up – nicely, and the audience is treated to some extremely fine performances that make characters you thought you knew seem fresh and exciting.

Chief among these performances is Cynthia Mace’s as the Nurse. Mace is a pro who knows exactly what she is about at all times and thus creates a nurse who, whether she is nattering on about Juliet as a babe, bandying with the boys or comforting Juliet, is a delight to watch. So too are Andy Murray as Capulet and Christina Rouner as Lady Capulet, for they create multi-faceted characters that, in some other productions, are given short-shrift. This is most obvious in the scene with Juliet (Irene Sofia Lucio) in which Capulet demands that she marry Paris (Ben Horner) – here the dynamics of the family are laid out for all to see, with the focus on the parents rather than the child. It’s a vital and gripping scene.

There’s also good work done by Henry Stram as Friar Lawrence and Marcus Henderson as Tybalt, the only “gang” member who is not asked to act like a horny prep-schooler.

Given Cooper’s emphasis on physicality and sensuality, Juliet and her Romeo (Joseph Parks) come off as a bit tame; at times they actually seem to get lost in the crowd. They do have their moments, especially in the balcony scene, but Lucio, often quite engaging, seems just a bit too studied in her attempt to create a young girl who is of three minds at the same time, and Parks, burdened by Cooper’s emphasis on perpetual motion, is asked to do some strange things: make an entrance by rolling across most of the stage; run in the rain from Mantua back to Verona (some 22 miles); deliver lines while hanging upside down, garbed in a white ape costume – all the while battling with his hair, which insists on falling across his face on a regular basis.

This is definitely not a “Romeo and Juliet” for the ages. As a mater of fact, it’s difficult at times to determine exactly which age group Cooper had in mind when she envisioned this production. There’s nothing wrong with giving Shakespeare a new look, but when the look’s the thing that dominates, as it does here, the production suffers to the extent that the audience comes away remembering the package more than the product. 

“Romeo and Juliet” runs through Saturday, April 2. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org.


            This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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