‘For never was a story more oft told’ isn’t quite the final line from Shakespeare’s iconic Romeo and Juliet, but for all the play’s retellings and renditions, it might as well be. That’s why it’s so vital, when mounting yet another version, to bring something new and compelling to the table.
Under the direction of Barbara Gaines, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet certainly satisfies the former. Gaines´ modernized take leans on the grim aspects of the story rather than the romantic ones, highlighting the senseless nature of violence. But in an effort to create something ‘new,’ the latter element is lost; without love at its core, Chicago Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet lacks the passion and intensity that has driven us back to this story for centuries.
This shift in focus becomes apparent in the first scene, as Lord Capulet hurls the famous thumb-biting insult typically spoken by a servant, and the Capulet and Montague parents battle alongside their young kin in the opening fray. Conceptually, it's interesting. Showcasing the generational nature of the families’ hostility reminds us that these aren’t just volatile teenagers arguing--this is a conflict that returns again and again, even if no one remembers why.
Yet the insertion of the parents does more harm than good. The interruption of the young Capulets’ basketball game doesn’t have the same sting with mom and dad involved; the ruthlessness of the altercation becomes somewhat comical with Mr. Capulet brandishing his cane at the front of the stage. In seeking to ask tough questions about the origins of violence, the driving force behind the show becomes muddled.
This happens again, and more noticeably, in the balcony scene. Here, Gaines positions the lovers whispering sweet-nothings over Juliet’s passed out father, and Romeo’s proclamations are interrupted by Mr. Capulet’s snores. We don’t need the Capulet patriarch physically between Romeo and Juliet to understand the barriers between our famously star-crossed couple. We need to witness, to feel, the love (and hate) permeating throughout this play.
What's perhaps most frustrating about this conceptual framework, though, is that not everyone seems to be on the same page. The play's design is vibrant and engaging in a way that generally doesn't align with this exploration of violence, and the cast seems as divided as the families they play in their approaches to the text.
That being said, there are performers that infuse the production with life, especially those in the supporting cast. I can’t say that I’ve ever pitied (or taken notice of) Paris before, but Julian Parker’s sincere, invested approach to the character makes him memorable. Nate Burger’s Mercutio is charismatic and energetic, especially during the Queen Mab speech, and Sam Pearson’s Tybalt is wonderfully unlikable.
While the design elements are at times inconsistent, the set, lights, and costumes are each compelling on their own terms. Mieka Van Der Ploeg’s costumes in particular add a wonderful sense of humor to the show--we know all we need to know about Tybalt the moment he walks onstage with a popped collar and boating shoes.
In piecemeal, Chicago Shakespeare’s production has intriguing elements, but it’s hard to be fully invested in the show. The focus on senseless violence renders our lovers’ relationship senseless too, and, be you Team Infatuation or Team Genuine Affection, it’s simply not as interesting to watch 140 minutes of a passion play sans passion. (Emily Schmidt)
Somewhat Recommended ★★
Romeo and Juliet continues at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre through Dec. 22. Info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago´s Review Round-Up.
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