Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project
By William Shakespeare
Co-directed by Bobbie Steinbach and Allyn Burrows
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Boston) We are so insane for love that we co-opt works of art that vilify love and turn them into romantic propaganda. It happens with every generation. I grew up with The Police song “Every Breath You Take” as the best love song of 1983, even though it was clearly about a stalker
Romeo and Juliet has become a stand-in for romance, so much so that Bugs Bunny and Pepe LePew could do the balcony scene and 4-year-olds would get the joke. But while any college freshman with a dye job can enjoy the irony that this iconically romantic story could easily be considered a black comedy, few theatre companies can stage “R + J” productions that can cut through the “Will U Be Mine” ethos we smear on the play.
Ah, but the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production playing at the Strand cuts through the romantic dribble and pierces Cupid’s heart with the all the hip efficiency of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Co-directors Bobbie Steinbach and Allyn Burrows are magicians on stage who manage to maintain the romantic eloquence of Shakespeare’s text while refusing to dodge this play’s unflinching misogynistic world view. Together, they and the actors create a new fable, bitterer than the one we’ve adopted, of Juliet’s coming of age and all the terrors that it brings.
In this nuanced production, we never forget that this love affair is undertaken by two shallow youths. Unlike most high-school romances, however, their mistakes prove fatal. Jason Bowen’s portrayal of Romeo never attempts to sanctify the lad; he keeps him simple, a heartbreakingly beautiful boy who enjoys sadness more than he enjoys reason or his own life. With Bowen’s purposely shallow shaping of Romeo, we lose any qualms we have that Romeo gets over Rosalind just in time to fall in love with Juliet. If it weren’t Juliet, it would be someone else; it’s just a stage.
But the revelation of this production comes with Juliet, skillfully portrayed by Julie Ann Earls. She is an every-girl, a child pulled into womanhood and then her grave within the space of a few days. We watch the flame of terror kindle within her at the first mention of an arranged marriage; it is clear she thought she still had a few more years to play in the nursery. We then follow her descent into her own private hell, as she weds and beds a love, but is forced to live without him and consent to marry another, a fate that would commit her soul to eternal damnation. Everyone she loves turns against her, including her Romeo by his rash actions. With Earls’ earnest portrayal and the unflinching focus of this production, her suicide seems all too rational.
Shakespeare built in a brilliant echo of the mad, destructive power of love with Mercutio (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), but few productions take the rancid bait the Bard leaves dangling. Mercutio’s speeches often are minimized and downplayed to a few moments of puzzled rants. But Parent is given full license to draw the audience in and to reveal that Mercutio is not mad. The character rants against love because he, alone, in his manic state, truly sees love’s deadly power. He can only go forward in such a world by spewing forth playful challenge to all convention. Mercutio’s bile towards love is akin to the desperate wailings of the last converted man at the end of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He screams about love because that’s all he has left to do, not because he believes it will do any good.
Every aspect of this production builds like a symphony to create a haunting piece of art, from the scenic design to the choreographed fights. We are left with nowhere to hide, not even in histrionics, as this play refuses to pull on your heartstrings, knowing we want to hide in waded up Kleenex and sniffles.
You need to see this play, but be warned: you can take a date, but don’t expect “Romeo and Juliet” to help you fall into bed afterwards. It might, however, help you strip away your romantic illusions to find what truly lies beneath the surface of love.