I’m of Two Minds (Both Alike in Dignity): “Romeo Juliet”

Photo borrowed from Club Oberon “Romeo Juliet” event site.

Presented by The Hypocrites
Directed and Adapted by Sean Graney
Adapted from the play by William Shakespeare

February 19 – 22, 2014
The Oberon
2 Arrow Street, Cambridge MA
The Hypocrites on Facebook

Whew!  Thanks for sticking with me, readers! Welcome to the Epic Conclusion of Dani’s Grand Bardopalooza Adventure: 2K14.  Over three days, I have attended and reviewed three different American Shakespeare remixes.  Tonight’s grand finale: Romeo Juliet presented by The Hypocrites at Club Oberon.

(Cambridge) Let’s start here: this is probably best titled a “remix” of Shakespeare’s play rather than a straight-up performance or adaptation.  Sean Graney took the original text, cut it, cropped it, zoomed in on some things, and re-arranged everything else to befit the story he wanted to tell.  And, as I said in my review of 12 Nights, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that treatment.  As an audience member, you should just be aware that you’re not going to be seeing Shakespeare on this stage; you’re going to be seeing work inspired by a timeless story.  As such, I think familiarity with the source text is a must.  I definitely saw plenty of kids in the audience, but I wasn’t certain that this was the best vehicle for introducing our well-known story to them. The story itself, in this form, felt rushed and improbable; like Graney was trying to slot too many elements into his slim sixty-minute time window.  There were moments that even I barely followed (and that’s saying something).

I’ll grant you this one: as much as I can recite Romeo and Juliet nearly from top to bottom, I know almost nothing about Bellini’s 1830 I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Graney’s secondary source for compiling this show).  As such, I will assume the elements I saw tonight that were less-than-familiar to me came from the opera and, thus, are not the fault of the compiler (but really… have Tybalt kill Mercutio then leave Mercutio alive to buddy cop around Verona with Romeo until Paris kills him at the tomb and on top of this give Paris Mercutio’s beautiful dying speech?  Come now, Bellini, that’s just not cool).

Some of the play’s more creative elements were things I never thought I’d see onstage.  Juliet and Romeo gender-bend the balcony scene while sipping tea civilly at a low table. Juliet is bedecked with an obvious half-sleeve tattoo.  Romeo delivers his heart-wrenching words after being banished to Juliet herself rather than Friar Lawrence.  And, in the coup d’état, this play harkens back to Thomas Otawy’s 1680 revision in which Juliet wakes just after Romeo swallows the poison to find her lover dying by her side.  Even my jaded heart had to crack a bit at seeing Romeo, weak and poisoned, squirming in convulsions on the ground, screaming “no! NO!” as Juliet plunges the sword into her chest to fall into his arms to die beside him.

The sounds of swords were prominent in this production.  During the opening scenes, one of the four actors kept a cavalcade of glissades going to underscore the main action.  Even when not in use, swords were always visible onstage; displayed prominently in a coffee-table-turned-weapon-rack.  After Tybalt is killed, his sword is hung above the stage as a reminder to the other characters (and the audience) that violence begets violence.

I will give this to the Hypocrites: they know how to handle an audience.  They are completely and utterly comfortable in close quarters with their observers; making eye (and even physical) contact at appropriate points in the show.  They move amidst and among, and utilize this sense of friendly joviality to draw you in to whatever it is they are doing.

While I appreciated the Hypocrites efforts to make Romeo and Juliet new and fresh (and goodness gracious does it need this kind of attention), I was left with a feeling of “why?”  I think Shakes-novices will find this version confusing, and those with Shakesperience will be happy for the novelty, but feel left with an insubstantial dissatisfaction at the end.  It’s an intriguing experiment in things you can do with a piece, but I’m still wondering what the point was.  Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  Romeo Juliet toes that line between “maybe” and “maybe not” so finely that you might just need to see for yourself to help me make up my mind about it.

This show is like a weird shapeless scoop of ethnic cuisine you’ve never tried before.  It has some familiar elements, and certainly individual spices you recognize, but the overall flavor and consistency is just not something you’re sure you want to swallow again.  I’m still sitting here smacking my lips trying to decide if I should take another bite or not, so I’d be hard-pressed to fully endorse it.  It’s not quite to the level of “this is gross, you taste it!”, but it’s definitely not an experience I can recommend without reservations.

On the whole, if you want to catch the Hypocrites this trip and have to pick just one of their offerings, I’d say see 12 Nights and give this a miss.   Then again, if you’re adventurous with your theatre, maybe you’ll enjoy that odd aftertaste a little more than I do.

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