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Romeo and Juliet

Real Lives, Real Love, Real Tragedy

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia
Saturday, April 9, 2022, C–8 (stalls center)
Directed by José Zayas

Juilet in peach nightgown lies with her head tucked under the crook of the dead Romeo's arm, he in checkered shirt and blood around on both bodies which are lying on a red-clothed bier
Juliet (Meg Rodgers) dies in the embrace of Romeo (Brandon Carter) in the American Shakespeare Center's 2022 production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. The José Zayas-helmed production found a rich socialpsychological study of obsessive love in Shakespeare's character-rich work. Photo by Anna Kariel Photography.

Juliet awakes. Romeo is dead.

Juliet finds the vial from which Romeo drank his poison. She attempts to drink what’s left, shakes the bottle, and says, “Drunk all and left no friendly drop to help me after?” Her quipping tone is so Juliet: She’s like this throughout the play—with Romeo, with Nurse, with her mother, with Paris, and with herself in every soliloquy. Even now, mere seconds after finding Romeo dead and intent to end her own life, she can’t help herself: she has to make a joke. Juliet kisses Romeo, and her tone shifts as she says, “Thy lips are warm,” comprehending the fatalistic truth that had she awoken just a minute earlier…

Juliet finds Romeo’s knife but hesitates before using it on herself, just as she had hesitated earlier in the play when she prioritized her life-ending options. The knife frightens her—poison is such an easier way to die—but Juliet finds her resolve. She unleashes a scream that rips through the stifling air of the Capulets’ crypt even before the blade touches her skin. When she finally slices into her abdomen, her scream goes silent: the stab is as horrible as she feared it would be.

In this American Shakespeare Center production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, we have soaked in the glow of initial infatuation as Meg Rodgers’s Juliet and Brandon Carter’s Romeo, unable to touch, gaze at each other, their eyes embracing long and longingly because parting really is such sweet sorrow. We have endured their relentless march to destruction. We are spent.

Yet Rodgers has one more moment left her, one more bit of so-Juliet behavior. Despite the shocking pain of her self-inflicted knife wound, she crawls under Romeo’s arm, curls herself up against his body and dies in his embrace. It’s the death both would have wanted when they first met, though their love’s lifetime lasts just three days.

I, a 64-year-old man watching my 39th production of this play, had never before felt so devastated at its ending. This Romeo and Juliet was so real, so us, because it was so fully grounded in Shakespeare’s script under the direction of José Zayas.

Leading off American Shakespeare Center’s artistic calendar last year, this production was a true phoenix. The Blackfriars not only was returning to pre-pandemic conditions, the company was rising from the ashes of a year of artistic and management turmoil. With Carter now the ASC’s artistic director, he has concentrated on staging easy-selling titles and casting longtime ASC favorite actors amid a company of newcomers. In addition to Carter and Rodgers, this repertoire company (also performing Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors) features Blackfriars veterans Jessika D. Williams as Lady Capulet, Patrick Earl as Mercutio, and Gregory Jon Phelps as Friar Lawrence.

Carter’s choice of directors is astute, too. Zayas’s resumé is thin on Shakespeare and other theater classics but is thick with premieres. His modern costumed take on Romeo and Juliet delves into the psychosis of teen-age love and the community dynamics and moral stipulations that can lead young lovers to self-inflicted mental and physical destruction. While his cut of the play focuses on his thematic pursuit, Zayas not only respects Shakespeare verse and throughline, he also relies wholly on the fully formed characters Shakespeare provides him.

Take that last scene. While many productions will shift Shakespeare’s timing to have Juliet awake before Romeo dies, amping up the plot’s tragic strain, Zayas leaves the timeline intact but excises Friar Laurence from the scene. Removing the panic-stricken priest allows the awakening Juliet to deal with her reality alone through her emerging consciousness. A beat after Romeo’s last breath, Rodgers’ Juliet awakes with a start, shakes the sleepwebs from her head, then sees Romeo, at first glad he’s there and then realizing he’s dead.

Such character details mark this production even before the play starts. Per ASC’s modus operandi—and that of Renaissance London theaters—the cast performs an acoustic pre-show set of contemporary music: My Chemical Romance’s “Teenagers,” Lil Nas X’s “That’s What I Want,” and Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America.” Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” kicks off the play’s thematic arc. Accompanied by mandolin, banjo, guitar, and stand-up bass, Carter and Rodgers, two outstanding vocalists, give a country soul vibe to the song while performing an all-encompassing obsession with each other, forcing themselves not to touch until they end the song leaning their foreheads together, a visual mind meld.

The cast follows this number with Labrinth’s “All For Us,” which moves directly into the play’s opening Chorus, each quatrain spoken by a different cast member. Then the Capulet-vs-Montague brawl is upon us: no weapons but a lot of dirty street fighting involving both genders, and both patriarchs throwing down, too (no holding them back). Other than the Prince, this Verona has no obvious caste system. Costume Designer Hope Maddox dresses everybody in jeans and leotards, except Lord and Lady Capulet wearing New Jersey cocktail chic. One notable exception to the modern dress aesthete is the Capulet’s masque, in which the company is costumed in Renaissance dresses and doublets, making Romeo's and Juliet’s first meeting as tradition-bound yet timeless as the play itself.

The masque is a brilliant piece of bacchanal ensemble playing. As the party guests dance, Romeo spies Juliet and tries to pair up with her; she soon sees him and wants a coupling, too. However, Mercutio, Capulet, Lady Capulet, and Nurse keep inadvertently intercepting them in a precisely choreographed dance sequence by Doreen Bechtol. The drunker the partiers become, the wilder the dancing, yet the more precise the choreography. When Romeo and Juliet finally connect, they work through their sonnet-structured first conversation coyly, appreciating how they can jointly form finely structured poetry in the moment. Stealing the first kiss, Romeo initiates the second with “Give me my sin again,” but Juliet needs no invitation: she gives him all his sins back and then some. “OH! You kiss by the book!” she says in OMFG fervor.

Cute stuff. But this all-out lust gets depth in the balcony scene. The Blackfriars gallery is too high for Romeo to easily scale, so Rodgers and Carter turn this physical separation into a desperate yearning to touch. Rodgers moves herself as far out onto the ledge of the balcony to get Juliet’s fingers within a foot of Romeo’s. In addition to being brave, this super smart Juliet tries to put the brakes on her romantic craving by arguing with herself, turning her rambling speech into self-interrogation.

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say 'Ay,'
And I will take thy word; yet, if thou swear'st,
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers' perjuries,
They say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully,
Or if htou think'st I am too quickly won,
I'll frown and be perverse and say they nay,
So thou wilt woo, but else not for the world.

Romeo can't get a word in—not even the famous lover's sigh—but it doesn't matter. Juliet has her eyes constantly on the end game: she wants to have this man. Rodgers' line readings are so giving in this scene she ratchets up the smitten Romeo’s feelings for her.

This moment establishes the lovers' foundational behaviors dictating their subsequent actions. From here we get a straight psychological line through Romeo’s initial response to Tybalt, his anguish at being banished, and his determination to end his life rather than live without Juliet; and through Juliet’s near-instant forgiveness for Romeo’s killing her cousin, her defiance of her father and willingness to go along with Friar Laurence’s fake-death scheme, and her determination to end her life rather than live without Romeo. The balcony scene also seals the audience’s devotion to their love; thus are we strapped in for their inextricably tragic journey.

With the interval placed after Mercutio’s and Tybalt’s deaths, Rodgers kicks off the play’s second half with Juliet’s “Gallop apace” soliloquy, Shakespeare's masterpiece depiction of a novice woman's sexual yearnings, while the rest of the cast are sitting along the sides of the stage, where they remain to the play's conclusion. Juliet doesn't know how Verona's violent bent is already closing in on her romantic fantasy. Romeo is sitting on the floor against the wall at the back, and Earl (still in costume as Mercutio) plays a slow repetition of somber notes on the stand-up bass. As subsequent scenes play out, Earl is joined by other cast members playing cello, piano, and drum, the soundtrack of time increasing its pace and limiting options.

The actors leave their seats to play their lines but maintain character while sitting in the times between. Williams as Lady Capulet, for example, looks at Juliet with embarrassment and at Friar Laurence with contempt during the scene at his cell. The sitting actors also hold props. Benvolio gives Romeo his knife, Lady Capulet gives Juliet her knife. Friar Laurence takes the vial from Paris, and when Romeo seeks the apothecary, Tybalt and Benvolio each hold up a vial; Romeo takes Benvolio’s (notably, all vials look the same). With Romeo and Juliet encased by their community, we remain fully aware how everyone involved in their lives contribute to their destruction through pride, ignorance, and poor counsel leading to one misstep and mischance after another to the couple's inevitable end.

Lady Capulet in flower print black dress and Juliet with a red blanket around her knees are sitting on the wood stage floor as Lady Capulet, wine glass in her left hand, reaches across to strok a reticent Juliet's head with her right hand.
Lady Capulet (Jessika D. Williams, right) tries to console her daughter, Juliet (Meg Rodgers) in the American Shakespeare Center's 2022 production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet at the Blackfriars Playhosue in Staunton, Virginia. Photo by Anna Kariel Photography.

With a solidly capable ensemble, singular choices in particular moments stand out. Phelps has built a reputation in this playhouse as a master of deadpan, and his Friar Laurence uses a studied holy bearing to gloss over what proves to be his consequential incomprehension of Verona's self-serving society. Yet, when Romeo reveals that his new lover is Capulet’s lone child, Phelps lets forth Laurence’s “Holy Saint Francis” and “Jesu Maria” with such blasphemous force he may as well have called a bowel movement holy and given God’s son a copulating middle name. Williams’ Lady Capulet leaves an indelible memory with her doesn't-want-to-be-bothered socialite behavior, wine glass in hand. Her explanation to Paris (Andreá Bellamore) that Juliet is unavailable for a visit because “Tonight she’s mewed up to her heaviness” drips with disdain.

In Lady Capulet’s opening scene with Juliet which establishes cold relationship of mother and daughter, Nurse (Erica Cruz Hernández) reads her lines as inside jokes that she and Juliet share. Theirs is the real parent-child relationship in this household. Nurse’s scene with Mercutio only amounts to excessive flirting on his part, but she certainly enjoys it. “Still got it,” Hernandez improvises. Earl has left his mark on the Blackfriars stage playing just this side of out-and-out crazy characters, from the titular Hamlet to the titular Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson: of course he’s going to be cast as Mercutio. He imbibes the role with such manic impetuous enthusiasm that when he starts into his Queen Mab speech, Romeo and Benvolio (Corrie Green) sit down to ride out Mercutio’s schtick.

Similarly, when Romeo begins publicly ruminating about his portentous feelings, the other guys are clearly weary of his tiresome fretting. Carter’s Romeo is as impetuous as his best friend Mercutio, but not nearly as entertaining. His pronouncements on love and hate in his first scene are more manic than carefully considered, though he clearly has quite the intellectual capacity, his common bond with Mercutio. It then becomes his common bond with Juliet. And for all his romantic musings, Carter's Romeo demonstrates the truth of his devotion in a manner I've never seen before: Upon seeing the seemingly dead Juliet on the bier in Capulet’s monument, he says “O my love, my wife,” and places Juliet’s ring that the Nurse had given him at Friar Laurence’s cell on Juliet’s finger.

From start to end, Rodgers uses an array of subtle touches of tone, gesture, posture, and expression to live Juliet’s lines. When her mother asks her “How stands your disposition to be married,” Juliet answers, “It is an honor that I dream not of,” with casual disdain: so like her mother. This Juliet doesn’t spare anybody her intellectually dismissive barbs, including herself, and not even when Blackfriars magic intervenes, as happens after she begins speaking in the balcony scene: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo.” Carter as Romeo on the stage turns to the audience as he wonders, “Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?” and a women in the audience replies, “Hear more.” Romeo happily acknowledges the advice and lies down to listen to the rest of what Juliet has to say. Rodgers, shoots a slyly disdainful look at the woman in her so-Juliet way while waiting out the audience’s laughter and regaining her own composure. It’s an in-the-moment refinement of her portrayal of Juliet's easy intelligence, ironic humor, and addictive exuberance of love.

Eric Minton
July 6, 2023

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