William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, from the 
American Shakespeare Center, at UMass Amherst

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Romeo and Juliet, Blackfriars Stage Company, American Shakespeare Center
Josh Carpenter and Brandi Rhome as Romeo and Juliet, Blackfriars Stage Company, American Shakespeare Center

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Director – Jim Warren
American Shakespeare Center
Bowker Auditorium, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

November 3, 2009

For over twenty years, the American Shakespeare Center (formerly the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) has been pursuing a distinctive style of production, marked by speed and intimacy. The troupe attempts to recreate the conditions of Shakespeare’s theater, including universal lighting, minimal sets, and on-stage seating (to recapture some of the effects of the thrust stage, unavailable at this venue). At their staging of Romeo and Juliet at U.Mass.’s Bowker Auditorium, some audience members, still chatting and wending their way to their seats in the brightly lit auditorium, were taken aback when Ginna Hoben stepped forth as the Chorus, speaking right over the hubbub and starting the play at eight on the dot (too rare an event these days). From this moment the play never slowed down, running a neat 129 minutes without an intermission, and the swift scene changes brought a real intensity.

The rapid pacing works particularly well in this play, in which key characters are marked by impulsiveness and haste: they just can’t restrain themselves. Romeo’s initial morose reluctance to see and speak to anyone (he is pining for the love of the never-to-appear and soon-to-be forgotten Rosaline) gives way to a fervent desire to meet (then immediately marry) Juliet; Tybalt can’t wait to shed the blood of the Montagues—Romeo in particular; Capulet, despite his professed care for his young daughter, violently rushes her into a marriage with Paris. This is, notably, a play about people with very bad timing (if only Romeo had waited an extra moment or two before killing himself . . .), and director Jim Warren beautifully conveys the sense of characters propelled towards destruction.

That said, this show is quite funny for a tragedy, and Warren here highlights, indeed glories in all the silliness he can find in the piece, something downplayed in many more stately productions. And, of course, the silliness is there: Romeo, played with convincing sincerity by Josh Carpenter, quickly alters his affections despite his assertion to Benvolio , “thou can’st not teach me to forget”; the nurse (Ginna Hoben again) interrupts with bawdy jokes and recollections Lady Capulet’s attempts to discuss with her daughter the truly serious matter of her choice of husband; the Capulets’ illiterate servant is sent forth with a list of invitations he cannot read; the young newlyweds, when their fortunes dim, seem as eager to kill themselves as they were to wed. The thwarted comedy at the heart of some of Shakespeare’s tragedies is here brought to the fore.

This use of speed and of comic elements needn’t entirely undercut the tragedy. The comic moments can give more edge to the shift into darkness; it is after all the death of the jokester Mercutio that locks us into the mechanism of tragedy. Here Curt Foy’s Mercutio plays that doubleness well: he blurts out his oft-quoted curse—“a plague on both your houses”—with shock and outrage; at the same time he proves unable to stop quipping in his old style. The danger of such an approach to the play is that the intensity of the comic business might obscure lines or actions of import: I in fact missed the moment when Romeo first spies Juliet at the party (“What lady’s that?”), distracted by some foolery of Capulet’s with an audience member seated on the stage. (Rick Blunt’s bluff and hearty Capulet is a bit of scene-stealer.)

Of paramount importance to the effect of the play is the casting of the lovers. Carpenter ‘s Romeo and Brandi Rhome’s Juliet well evoke the fervor and eagerness of adolescent attraction. The balcony scene of second act had a real charm and freshness to it. The pair are deliriously happy here, goofy even, without losing the poetry of the scene. And this scene has to work, for the awful, chaotic aftermath to have its proper weight, for the final image of wasted young lives to hit home. (I should interject the observation that Rhome has an unfortunate gestural habit, flinging her arms wide to convey emotion, which soon grows distracting.) That final scene, however, isn’t entirely effective. On the one hand, the sword fight is well handled, with Aidan O’Reilly’s Paris matching Carpenter’s Romeo in distress and confusion (Romeo has to check to see whom he’s killed). The double suicides at the tomb, while well acted, are undercut by an oddity of set construction: the tomb on which the action takes place doesn’t seem quite big enough for both actors to rest upon safely. Still, the play’s closing moments, when any last chance for comedy is definitively gone, work beautifully: the stillness of the scene, in which only the old folks are left standing, has been sharpened by the kinetic quality of the earlier action.

I recommend that you try to catch the ASC on tour, or, if you find yourself in the vicinity of Staunton, Virginia, take in a show at their replica of the Blackfriars Playhouse.

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