William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, dir. Gale Edwards, 11/9/10 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Ms. Edwards, in her discussion of her collaboration with set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, describes her stage as a once beautiful place inhabited by “wealthy, feuding dynasties” where “the modern world has been imposed on top of the elegant world of the past, now violated and perched on destruction.”
It is clear from Friar Lawrence’s laboratory (a truly beautiful and intricate set piece) that despite the protestations of Ms. Edwards that “the world” of the theater “is described by the characters through poetry and imagination,” a great deal of attention was paid to the physical stage. Her attempt to liken this to a bare bones production is laughable. Brawls are physical and real, with six or more characters hurling barricades at one another during the play’s opening; the sound effect accompanying the Nurse knocking on Friar Lawrence’s door is akin to Thor striking at the forge in Valhalla, and Prince Escalus’ drone of doom has digital echoes to remind us that we are in a tomb, lest the altar fail to do so.
The cuckoo clock machinations of chandeliers swinging up and down, beds and biers spouting from the floor, and stage hands shuffling about the bellows makes for short changes, but places you in the belly of the motorized beast which is this rushed production. Somehow making two and a half hours look flabby, this lean-Shakespeare-machine churns out the production in short order, dispensing with the final scene in a matter of minutes.
The acting was generally adequate, though dangerous overtones of Baz Lurhrman’s Romeo creep into the DiCaprio-esqe reading by Mr. Lillico. Mercutio is done passably well by Mr. Shafir; his Queen Mab monologue is “by the book” but satisfying nonetheless. The worst performance was Mr. Musselman as the Apothecary who did all but twirl his mustache in his few lines. Perhaps avenging his being passed over for a larger part, he comically barrels out from behind one of the silly garage doors on the set like Lon Chaney’s Wolfman leaping from a stand of trees.
A nod to Mr. Haggard as Benvolio, who owned his performance and exceeded the limitations of the character. Similar in quality are Mr. Lively’s Friar Lawrence and Ms. Jones’ Nurse. What they lacked in intensity was perhaps due to Ms. Edward’s reading of these characters as abortive surrogate parents to the star-crossed lovers who must display some measure of detachment in order to fulfil the directorial reading.
Questionable choices included the deletion of the opening sonnet (perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous opening) and the ill suited “music from a motion picture” interludes that swell when the director bossily tells us how we should feel.
Finally, much was made of the lack of spark between Mr. Lillico and Ms. Farmer-Clary as Romeo and Juliet, but that portion of the play seemed an afterthought of the director. Much like the bed that literally descends into the bowels of the stage and returns as Juliet’s bier, the love story seemed to flicker then vanish into nothingness, leaving the audience as “unsatisfied” as Romeo in the orchard. The direction of Romeo’s scene in Juliet’s bed prior to his flight comes off as sleazy rather than sensual, like the actors from a Tennessee Williams play accidentally wandered onto the wrong stage. In fact, much of the energy of this production seems misplaced, perhaps a byproduct of the need to “spice up” a play that has seen overly abundant production.