(Editor’s note: This story has been updated.)
Theater, Navy Pier
When: through Dec. 22
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Purists, be warned: Artistic Director Barbara Gaines takes great liberties with “Romeo and Juliet” in her first stab at directing Shakespeare’s early tragedy for Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
It’s not that she sets the play in August 2020, though the near-future timetable raises questions that aren’t addressed (more about this later). Nor does the color-crossing casting to emphasize that the violence is not racially motivated (she explains in a program essay) cause any real difficulties. Ditto switching some lines around, for example, to give opening servants’ dialogue to the feuding parents to clarify that the conflict starts with older generations, in the case Mr. Capulet. Or adding an ending with an anti-violence plea and a decidedly contemporary memorial wall.
The eye-popping design inspired, Gaines says, by the paintings of Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall may be too radical for some, but others will find it refreshing. Scott Davis’ scenic design features a floor that’s a riot of color, three tilted lamp posts, and moving parts that make the location everything from Juliet’s front porch to a basketball court. Mieka van der Ploeg’s eclectic costumes follow suit. Aaron Spivey’s lighting can conjure the Friar’s cell or Mantua’s shadowy streets. Coupled with Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design, it creates highly dramatic blackouts – with lights flashing in the audience’s eyes – between scenes.
The changes Gaines makes that are most likely to disturb traditionalists involve details of staging and interpretation. For instance, she has a drunken Mr. Capulet (James Newcomb) snoozing on a lounger in the yard all during the famous balcony scene, and a porch with a couple of steps stands in for the balcony. Later, Romeo (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) and Juliet’s (Brittany Bellizeare) night together before his banishment passes with them sitting outside on a boulder, even though it ends with the Nurse (Betsy Aidem) warning Juliet that her mother is coming to her “bedchamber.” (Note: Cage Sebastian Pierre who played Benvolio has stepped into the role of Romeo for the remainder of the run.)
Speaking of Mrs. Capulet (Lia D. Mortensen), not only is she as heavy a drinker as her husband, she hooks up with Mercutio (Nate Burger) at the Capulet party, lending an equivocal note to an onlooker’s comment about her virtue. This is just one aspect of Gaines’ reinvention of Romeo’s best buddy, who is transformed from brilliant, if angry, wit cut down too soon to a mean-spirited possible psychopath we miss less than is often the case.
Gaines also rethinks the fight that ends with both Mercutio and Tybalt (Sam Pearson) dead. Instead of Romeo stabbing Tybalt in the heat of the moment after Tybalt mortally wounds Mercutio, when Romeo was trying to prevent his friend from striking, she has Tybalt leave before Mercutio realizes his wound is mortal and dies—delivering his famous curse on both your houses speech. Then Tybalt returns and Romeo goes at him in a fight to the death. I’m not sure if the director is suggesting that Romeo had time to reconsider—and should have—but the implications certainly are different.
Most of Gaines’ alternations aren’t too bothersome, mainly because the acting generally is good, and some minor characters like Benvolio (Cage Sebastian Pierre) stand out like never before. The connection between the lovers is believable, though it comes across more as youthful infatuation than as enduring commitment.
On the other hand, the August 2020 setting gives me pause for two reasons. First, specifying that the action takes place before an important national election makes one wonder why there’s no mention of politics or current events. Second, and arguably more important, the tragic outcome of “Romeo and Juliet” turns on a messenger’s failure to deliver a key letter, but why, in an age when everyone has cell phones, wouldn’t the Friar (Darlene Hope) simply call Romeo and share his plan?
For that matter, since mores have changed and travel is much easier than in the 1590s, why wouldn’t Juliet just go with Romeo when he’s banished? Not only are they already married, Bellizeare’s Juliet is a spirited young woman who thinks for herself, and there’s little love lost here between her and her parents, particularly given Mr. Capulet’s violent reaction when she initially refuses to marry Paris (Julian Parker).
I guess it could be argued that these incongruities—and others like the fact that no one has guns (which, unlike knives, don’t support the references to blades, including off-color jokes) – reinforce the point Gaines is trying to make about the absurd senselessness of the feud and violence. I’m not so sure.
I found this “Romeo and Juliet” interesting but a little annoying. Then, admittedly, I’m something of a purist.