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Romeo and Juliet

The Tone Is Out of Joint

Lean & Hungry Theater, WAMU 88.5 FM Radio, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Directed by Kevin Finkelstein

I’ve long held that Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s great plays and one of his worst. I’ve long believed that where it falls on that spectrum depended on my mood at the time of either reading or seeing the play.

Lean & Hungry Theater revealed a different perspective of the above conundrum. As much as my attitude is the presenter’s approach to Romeo and Juliet that dictates its place on the Shakespeare quality spectrum. I say that because, in its one-hour radio broadcast of Romeo and Juliet, Lean & Hungry managed to hit both ends of that quality spectrum.

Typical of Lean & Hungry’s Shakespeare radio theater, the original play is adapted to a narrative framework transporting the story, plot and all, to a different setting from Shakespeare's. The narrator speaks in the idiom of that setting, but the characters in the play speak Shakespeare’s lines. For Romeo and Juliet, After the whole cast in turns spoke Shakespeare’s Chorus prologue (a key line changed to “one-hour traffic of our stage”), the narrator (Karen Novack) placed us in contemporary Verona, California, where young teens’ “days are filled with classes, fencing lessons, parties, and way too much testosterone.” The opening rumble between Montagues and Capulets took place in the hallways of the Prince Preparatory Academy, and it’s the principal who breaks it up. Despite this modern setting, the fight not only involved swords, based on the sound effects (they do partake of fencing lessons, after all), but the principal threatened not just detention or suspension or even arrest but torture and death, per the original script.

This glaring disconnect between play and framework played into an overall attitude of lighthearted fun for this production. After Romeo told Benvolio of his love for Rosaline, narrator Novack said “Rosaline? I thought this was Romeo and Juliet!” Good for a laugh. She went for more such laughs, successfully so, throughout the play. With Friar Laurence awaiting a reply to his letters to the banished Romeo, “Someone should have warned him that the post office is facing budget cuts,” Novack said. She noted that upon Romeo killing Tybalt, if he wanted to avoid going to, ewww, public school, he will have to move three hours up the coast to attend a private school in Mantua. As this framed The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet as so much silliness, in much of its poetry Shakespeare himself could be charged with abetting thus much silliness.

But in the hands of skilled actors, Shakespeare’s poetry is mighty special, and when the play is performed in earnest dedication to the characters as Shakespeare wrote them, Romeo and Juliet is a deeply moving love story that turns into a truly heart-tugging tragedy. Such skilled actors were those of Lean & Hungry Theater, particularly the two title characters and the two key comic characters.

James Majewski as Romeo glided through his poetic lines with a sweet fluidity that made this listener’s jaw slack. Natalie Pyle made Juliet a sweet girl, a tad trifling, but she, too, mastered the poetry. You can hear her heart purr. When we heard the lovers’ hooking up with their sonnet and kisses, we became as enamored of them as they were of each other. The balcony scene and morning-of-banishment scenes were likewise highlights of this production, so much so that they suffered in being cut so much to make sure the production fit its one-hour time slot. I wanted more Romeo and Juliet!

I also wanted Nurse and Mercutio to have their street scene together, but that, unfortunately, was entirely excised in the editing. Nurse is one of Shakespeare’s great comic women, and Heather Haney, reminding me a bit of Fran Drescher’s The Nanny, nailed all her laugh lines, plus some. She also exquisitely managed the anguish of discovering Juliet dead on the morning of her planned wedding to Paris. She entered the scene in high spirits but, upon being unable to rouse the girl, her emotional tone stumbled off the cliff of despair.

Bob Sheire’s Mercutio, another of Shakespeare’s great creations, was a suitably leering jester, and Romeo was his ideally suited straight man. Sheire delivered the Queen Mab speech like a guy whose wild imagination was running rampant until Romeo cut him off with “Peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.” “True,” Sheire intoned matter-of-factly; “I talk of dreams.” Yet, as with Haney’s Nurse, Sheire knew how to effectively bring Mercutio’s tragedy to the fore upon his fatal wounding at the hands of Tybalt (Jay Sullivan). Sheire conveyed facing an impending death he never saw coming so convincingly we could almost feel the stab wound ourselves. “A plague o’both your houses,” was the scream of a man who had toyed with the two houses’ rivalry and now realized he had become the first murder victim of that rivalry.

And how does the second murder victim die? Well, Romeo and Tybalt set to with swords, from the sounds of it, but then somebody shouted “Romeo’s got a gun,” and we heard a shot. Thus, what was meant to bring modern relevance to this ancient tale inserted a gimmick followed by a jokey narration about Romeo facing the dire punishment of, ewww, attending public school. It was all the more jarring coming as it did hard upon Mercutio’s painful death and just before the distraught nurse gave Juliet the horrific news that her new husband had killed her cousin.

Those who can reconcile these two tones will enjoy this as a giddy presentation with fine vocal performances. For my part, I say that you can set Romeo and Juliet whenever and wherever you will; just leave the original script to its own devices (including its humorous moments), and the timeless story will serve its turn as one of Shakespeare’s best plays. Interpolate on that, and you end up with one of his weakest plays. Lean & Hungry Theater with this single production has proved both points.

Eric Minton
November 20, 2011

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