Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been staged, restaged, and reinvented countless times (so much so that I can attend one production of it while doing dramaturgy research for another production in the fall). When staging Shakespeare, there’s always the weight of the past and people’s expectations with the material, as well as struggling to make a tale that feels as old as time new and innovative. Director Penelope Parsons-Lord of Mission Theatre Company’s production currently playing at the Crane Theater recognizes this in her director’s notes, discussing her work to move away from the stereotypes we might carry from this tale of star-crossed lovers. She also discusses falling in and out of love with the play, something I know very well. Like most graduates of the Minnesota public school system, I was introduced to this in play in my freshman year and hated it. I did not understand the love-infatuated characters or the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets.
Because I’m working on this show in the fall (as a literary intern), I’d recently read the script a few times and was more attune to the changes and cuts made in lines than I probably would be. I’m going to assume you know the plot, but just in case you don’t, here’s the Wikipedia article for you. This production gives us certain glimpses that we don’t get in the script, such as a scene before the Chorus’ prologue with two lovers entwined and one being slain, giving us a look at the cycles of violence in Verona. Also added is Romeo being rejected by Rosaline, hints of Lady preferring Paris to her husband. The world feels fantastical, like a dark fairytale. Rose petals represent love and glittering confetti is thrown at the more joyous moments. Romeo (Vincent Hannam) moves from lovesick to giddy to enraged and violent, giving him a wide emotional trajectory and vibrance. Juliet (Bethany McHugh) is just as vibrant, perhaps more so because she’s given such a refreshing portrayal. If you’ve ever read Harold Bloom (a rather conservative Shakespearian theorist) and his thoughts on Romeo and Juliet, he scoffs at those who “surrender” the play to “commissars of gender and power who can thrash the patriarchy,” resisting the urge to give Juliet a feminist reading*. Considering that I like giving the patriarchy a good thrashing, I was overjoyed that McHugh’s Juliet is headstrong, relentless, and a little sarcastic (especially to her two mother figures, the nurse and Lady Capulet). Juliet seems a little older and wiser than I’ve seen before while still hopeful and lovestruck. Both Hannam and McHugh wonderful capture what it looks like and feels like to suddenly fall in love with someone. Romeo might make the first move, but Juliet quickly reciprocates, grabbing him and pulling him in for a kiss rather than only letting him take the lead. It’s a little detail, but one I greatly appreciated and gave Juliet a different edge – she’s assertive, this may not be the first time she’s kissed someone, and she’s willing to take risks to get what she wants.
Juliet’s physical agency becomes a larger issue in this piece, as the show overall contains a great deal of physical movement. As the show goes on and tragedy unfolds, Juliet seems to slowly lose agency over her body. She is pushed and thrown down by her father Lord Capulet, she is grabbed and shaken by Romeo, and Paris grabs her for a kiss she is repulsed by. Even when she is unconscious and presumed dead, Romeo still takes control, carrying her across the tomb and trying to sit her up. These scenes are hard to watch (especially the scene in which, while telling his daughter she must marry Paris, Lord Capulet throws his daughter and her nurse the the floor and attacks his wife) perhaps because I seem them too much in my own world. The use of violence in this particular scene reminds me of its similarity to Hero’s decision to fake her death in Much Ado About Nothing. Juliet and Hero have some interesting parallels, both with fathers who are upset that they haven’t followed the rules (though Hero has been misjudged) and with faked deaths in order to escape their situations (though it ends very differently for Hero than it does for Juliet). At the end of this show, it’s almost jarring to watch Romeo haul Juliet around because so much has already happened to her. Given current issues with control over women’s bodies, it’s interesting to see this. I don’t know if that’s the intention, but that’s certainly where my mind went with it.
Along additions mentioned previously, there are also some cuts. Towards the end, the Prince’s lines (as well as others) are given to the Chorus, which appears as the ensemble throughout the play, almost like wraiths in the embodiment of death and violence that hangs about Verona. The Nurse’s humorous tangents, as are some of Juliet’s forecasting her own death and her “apology” to her parents, promising she’ll marry Paris (before she actually drugs herself and appears to be dead). Much of Mercutio’s sexual jokes and euphemisms are also cut. While there are many humorous moments in the play, and some are given to Romeo and Juliet, I did miss these bits. I did enjoy that Mercutio and Benvolio are both played by women (Tamara Koltes and Ashely Hovell, respectively) which adds a new element to the relationship they share with Romeo and adds a little more female power the stage. Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is markedly different, with a very dark feel as Mercutio slaps away the hands the ensemble that try to envelop her and ends on a note that feels as if she is recalling an assault. Given the earlier feelings of loss of agency, given Mercutio’s gender and eminent death, perhaps the cuts of humor are important to establish a very different kind of Mercutio.
The way in which the Chorus is used is also really powerful. In the script, the Chorus arrives at the beginning of Act 1 and 2 to give the audience an idea of what’s going to happen/what’s just happened and then is never seen again. While the bit at Act 2 is parsed down, there are other moments where the Chorus steps in, especially in the background of scenes. At times, some of the ensemble work felt a little too much – the dance choreography at the ball scene at the beginning, as much as I liked it, involved clapping and made it a bit difficult to hear some of Romeo and Juliet’s exchanges from where I was sitting. At others it isn’t clear what’s going on until later, which adds an interesting layer of complexity. For example, when Mercutio and Tybalt are slain, the ensemble arrives to drop red rose petals and resurrect them in a sense. Later, when these actors appear in the ensemble, it almost feels as if they have joined this group of wraith-like beings (maybe it’s the ragged black hoods, reminding me of the Ring Wraiths from Lord of the Rings that makes me feel inclined to call them wraiths). One scene in particular that stands out it Juliet’s poisoning/drugging scene. Before she drinks the potion she’s secured from Friar Laurence (who’s portrayed as wonderfully kind and wise by Gary Danciu), uncertain if it’s going to work or if it’s going to kill her, she imagines she sees the her deceased cousin Tybalt. Because Tybalt is one of these wraiths and appears before her, it hits home the impact of Shakespeare’s words and Juliet’s mental state. The ensemble then transitions from Juliet’s unconsciousness to Romeo’s dream, placing Juliet in Romeo’s hideout where he is dreaming that she arrives to find him dead. This work with movement is especially beautiful and powerful.
There are a few little things that I struggled with in this production – at times, emotion in actor’s voices overtook my ability to hear the line being said, though overall I understood/ heard clearly more lines than I have in other productions of Shakespeare’s plays. There were a few transitions that felt a bit long (though one was clearly a costume change, which is understandable) and I found Mercutio and the ensemble’s singing of “Do You Believe in Magic?” during Romeo’s struggle with being lovesick jarring (perhaps only because I’d made up my mind that this took place in some other fairytale world).
There was something else that caught my eye about this production that initially caught me off-guard but made me think about how we work with Shakespeare. On the program/promotional material for this show this quote is featured: “These drops of tears/ I’ll turn to sparks of fire.” I didn’t recognize it from Romeo and Juliet so I did some investigating. A brief search taught me it’s from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Curious about why it was used, I reached out to Mission Theatre and received this response sent along from director Penelope Parsons-Lord:
Whenever I approach a Shakespearean text I try to clear my head of all preconceived notions about that play. This is something that I try to encourage audiences to do as soon as I have an ability to reach them, starting with our marketing material. Hence, I always try to find a quote that cuts to the heart of my interpretation rather than one that is commonly associated with the play. I love the action encapsulated within this quote, it perfectly sums up both the heartbreak and danger of grief. What we choose to do with our personal and collective griefs as a society directly relates to the kind of culture that we create around us – cycles of violence can be started and continue so easily. The world of this play is a heartbreaking combination of grief and fire ready to explode.
I think this really captures the way that Mission Theatre is working with this iconic work and I’m grateful to have received this response. It’s really insightful and I wish that this focus on the quote could have been included in the director’s notes because I find this perspective so interesting.
Overall, this show is moving and powerful. It can be hard to make people care about such iconic characters, especially if we know their tragedy very well. But it was easy to empathize with Romeo and Juliet and feel the urge to leap in and somehow prevent their untimely fates. The violence portrayed was uncomfortable and, even to someone who often feels desensitized, made me cringe and squirm. Juliet’s reawakening from her sleeping potion and her death were the most painful for me, causing me to actually feel nauseous and she choked and cried her way back into life. Pain isn’t always easy to act onstage but this production does it especially well. Performed in two hours without an intermission, this show careens through six short days, making it feel (as Carson Kreitzer has described shows without intermissions) like “a merry-go-round you can’t get off.” Something I especially appreciated was the content warning found in the lobby at the box office/ concessions stand, including warnings that show depicted violence such as suicide and domestic violence and also including hotlines for those who might seek help. I don’t often see content warnings for shows and I’ve never seen one that also provided help referrals. Given the impact of this show and that often young students (such as high schoolers attend) I’m glad this was included. I personally have suicide scenes in other shows triggering and might have found the domestic violence unbearable if the content warning hadn’t ben given.
With Shakespeare, there’s so much to play around with given that his shows contain so many allegories, dense characters, and even denser language. I love how this production investigated new territory and made this well-known play feel new. I might feel a bit conflicted about some of the changes, but over all this is is a dynamic, powerful piece that I’m so happy to have seen.
Romeo and Juliet is directed by Penelope Parson-Lord. It is playing now through June 17th. For ticket and show information (as well as a full cast list, as I was sadly unable to mention them all), please check out Mission Theatre’s website.
For more of my thoughts on my reading of this particular play, please check out this poem I posted while doing my own dramaturgy research for the Guthrie’s production this fall.
*quote taken from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom.