Oh, what are we to do with a folded, spindled and…no, not mutilated…ah, mutated… “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare on the Sound’s 2012 production currently playing at Baldwin Park in Greenwich? Well if we are die-hard traditionalists we will say Pshaw! (if anyone can actually say “Pshaw”), turn our backs and look superior as we amble off the grounds, mumbling indignantly, “How could they! I mean, really!” Yet…if we stay and ease back a bit, we’ll find that, despite some jagged edges and wrong notes, this production, under the guidance of artistic director Joanna Settle and executive director Steven Yuhasz, is quite compelling, with some acting turns that are first-rate.
One of the major problems with this production is the creative premise, or framing device, which could have been intriguing if it had been fleshed out and made a bit more integral to the Bard’s work. To, wit, we have a modern-day birthday celebration, an annual event in which a play is chosen and the attendees act out the various roles. The venue is a successful architect’s deck, a multi-level structure of straight and curved wooden platforms (created by set designer Laura Jellinek) of which the architect, married to a much younger woman, is extremely proud.
His wife has chosen the play, “Romeo and Juliet,” and the roles the guests will play (this preamble dialogue, and much of the music, is written by the interestingly named STEW, creator of “Passing Strange”). Playing the part of Romeo will be the wife’s ex-boyfriend and playing the part of Juliet will be … well, you guessed it. The husband is not very happy with this determination, and there seems to be another young woman at the party who has a substantial ax to grind with the proposed Romeo. Hmmm, could be interesting. Alas, the initial party moments, wherein modern relationships are established, goes nowhere, and the heart begins to sink. Oh, what are we in for? How long is this going to take? Is the Bard spinning in his grave?
The guests are reading from scripts, and there’s a lot of role-trading and role-grabbing in the early part of the production as we start to roll out this play within a play, which isn’t working because it isn’t worked, but, wonder of wonders, we get to the balcony scene and everything comes into focus, for the modern frame is eschewed, scripts are dropped, and we have pure Shakespeare, well, not pure iambic pentameter, but something better, and it’s damn fine. The creative premise falls away and we are treated to a vibrant “Romeo and Juliet” that, save for some dissonant moments, gloriously captures the pubescent drive of the play.
Once Ali Ahn is relieved of her responsibilities as modern wife and takes on the role of Juliet she is a delight, a Juliet eager to experience love, a young girl on the cusp of adulthood who can’t contain her child-like, delicious delirium in simply being loved, and as her Romeo, William Jackson Harper delivers a definitive performance, speaking his lines as a street-wise yet sensitive and confused boy-man, violence, need and sexual urgency percolating beneath a façade of cool.
Shriven of their “modern” roles, other actors come to the fore, especially Chinasa Ogbuagu as Juliet’s nurse. She, as well as Ahn and Harper, benefit from the modern overlay in that they get to deliver their lines, both verbally and physically, in the vernacular, which means that the iambic pentameter is subsumed…it’s there, but it’s not the horse that the actors ride or are ridden by. Oddly enough, this allows us to hear what Shakespeare’s audience heard, not a “Hi-falutin,” nasal delivery but a more robust, earthy prose and poetry that captures Shakespeare’s essence.
Yes, the production allows the actors, at times, to soar, but it also forces them to crash as well, and this is no more evident than when Romeo’s and Juliet’s bodies are discovered in the crypt at the end of act two. Juliet’s father (Tony Torn) and mother (Rachael Holmes), along with the nurse, break out into a cacophonous dirge that sounds like it was orchestrated by cats in heat…the dissonance is astonishing.
There are other musical moments, many of them, too many of them, that are more distracting than supportive. As dialogue is delivered there are underlying themes being played, many of which are reminiscent of the music played for fade-outs in soap operas such as “Days of Our Lives” or, more ominously, “Dark Shadows.”
This ‘take’ on “Romeo and Juliet” succeeds in spite of itself. There’s a concerted effort here to update the tale, yet the Bard wins out, as he must, and when the tale is played straight it resonates, for there are some very fine actors who accept the premise but still deliver the essence of the play. Overlook the stagey musical interludes and attend to the cast when it is doing Shakespeare as written…you’ll be enchanted.
“Romeo and Juliet” runs through July 8 at its Baldwin Park, Greenwich, venue, then opens at Pinkney Park in Rowayton on July 18 and runs there until July 29. Admission is free but a $20 donation is suggested.