Most readers know the story of Romeo and Juliet. It’s that story you were required to read in high school – you know, the tale of the star-crossed lovers from rival dynasties with a tragic ending?
But what about its ribald jokes and coarse innuendos? Do you remember its musicality? The humor of Paris’ predicament? Or Mercutio’s phallic puns? Can you recall how you imagined the body language of the characters at all? In short, do you remember if it was good?
Shakespeare’s works are all-too-often presented as clinical, dispassionate, sapped of their performative elan. Romeo and Juliet in particular is frequently taught as a self-aware tragedy– required reading to be enjoyed, but only incidentally.
Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s highly enjoyable production of Romeo and Juliet, however, provides the antidote to this brand of grade-school burnout — and manages to do so without gratuitous “updates” or “translations” of the original. Directed by Claire F. Martin, the warmly-lit, wood-paneled Kenan Hall at William Peace University furnished a suitably intimate setting for this enactment. Martin’s decision to stage the play largely in front of the drawn curtains, as well as in the orchestra pit, enveloped the audience in the excitement of the action without exacting any would-be-awkward interaction. Literally and figuratively, Shakespeare’s characters were often placed on the same level as the audience, creating a kind of metaphorical empathy with the actors. This further interpolated the audience as engaged witnesses and collaborators.
Textually, the script did not variate discernibly from Shakespeare’s. The most obvious departure was in the show’s light musical moments during which light instrumentals and ballads were performed by the entire cast. These musical interludes bookend the play and are performed during intermission. Far from feeling stilted or shoe-horned, this pleasant accompaniment aptly augmented the play without distracting from it.
Certainly, the most striking aspect of the performance was the sheer detail the actors imputed to their roles, and the emotional vigilance that must be involved in that process. As the titular lovers, Chloe Oliver and Benjamin Apple convincingly alternated between the naïve frivolity of love’s first blush and morbid solemnity and were careful to inflect their characters’ often-suppressed quips. Their onstage chemistry was vivid and palpable — Apple and Oliver are a couple in real-life — and still managed to convey the jejune self-absorption of a teenage tryst in a way that seemed natural. Still, Oliver’s interpretation refreshingly accords Juliet more volition and expression than is conventionally ascribed to her — even as her father forces her into an unloving marriage that she ultimately rejects. Bryson David Hoff depicts a brutally uncompromising father to Juliet and a choleric – but ribbing – Mercutio — his being one of many dual performances that were pulled off adroitly.
Another especially outstanding feature of this interpretation is its comedic tone. All too often stagings of Romeo and Juliet succumb to a ponderous, over-serious atmosphere that tends to suffocate the Bard’s playfulness. As the Nurse and Tybalt/Paris, Benji Jones’s and Nat Sherwood’s expressive performances alone provided enough material for a one-act farce; their comic timing was excellent, their dynamic actions/reactions spot-on, and Sherwood’s mastery of wordless expression was delightfully reminiscent of some of the old silent film stars.
Yet more excellent aspects of the show were Tara Nicole William’s fight direction and Maggie Hatfield’s choreography. The sword bandying and fight scenes especially seemed realistic, such that one readily felt the shock of Tybalt’s death, or felt the paroxysms of Romeo’s toxic demise, or shared in the musical effervescence of the Capulet’s ball. Forget the sleep-inducing English classroom renditions of Romeo and Juliet. An unassailable performance all around, one has every reason to want to see Sweet Tea’s take on Shakespeare’s darkly comic masterpiece.
Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet runs through this weekend in Raleigh at William Peace Univesity’s Kenan Hall. For more information visit www.sweetteashakespeare.com.
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