Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’ has often been used by theaters to attract younger audiences – nothing like a tragic love between two teenagers to draw people on a date. The Dallas Theater Center’s current production follows that pattern. The play has been stripped down and made contemporary with torn jeans, pop music and gunplay. KERA’s Jerome Weeks sat down with Justin Martin to sort out whether this entire approach really works or even makes sense.
Justin: When it comes to the Shakespeare plays, Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty wants to make them accessible to teen audiences by simplifying the language and making things look contemporary. But as admirable as that intention may be, you’ve described the results as often approaching ‘short-attention-span Shakespeare.’ Is that true with the current ‘Romeo and Juliet’?
Now, by far, the best known example of this kind of ‘PG-13’ or YA approach has been film director Baz Luhrmann’s deliriously over-the-top movie version, the one starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
You remember it? Lemme guess. You hated it.
I hated it.
Like an hommage?
In the film, for example, Romeo hangs out in a pool hall with his buddies. Onstage here, same thing, a pool hall. In the film, the young lovers sneak away to get secretly married by Friar Laurence, and his church has these rows of big, white, neon crosses. Same thing here – although it’s just one big, white, neon cross. There are maybe a half-dozen of these ‘visual echoes,’ some less obvious than others.
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambushes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear.
So what’s the overall effect of these ‘quotations,’ as you call them?
To be fair, in Luhrmann’s film adaptation, he’s aiming for the trash-operatic, the chic and the grandiose. That’s not Ferrell’s game. He does more than just quote Luhrmann here. He’s got some theatrical inventiveness of his own to keep the adolescent audience members awake. He boldly opens the play with the ominous, final death scene. A morgue full of white-shrouded corpses strikes a death-haunted note more effectively than the traditional prologue typically does (“the fearful passage of their death-mark’d love .. is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage”). Ferrell also pulls a smart bit of cross-gender casting with Christie Vela as Friar Laurence.
In Shakespeare’s play, the good friar serves two awkwardly conjoined plot functions: He offers the immediately ignored, canonical wisdom — all that stuff about showing some restraint in your blinding whirl of passion (“Love moderately, long love doth so”) — and then he makes that advice pointless. He bungles the delivery of the all-important note explaining Juliet’s faked death, thus ensuring two non-faked suicides.
But with a woman in this role, the good friar gains emotional weight, earns more of our attention. Vela’s Laurence is more of an involved, maternal presence. Her advice comes from heartfelt concern — and now offsets the nattering, comical Nurse (Liz Mikel) and, in this case, Juliet’s own absent mother. Ferrell’s stripped-down casting has axed both female parents from the Montagues and Capulets, leaving an abusive Chris Hury as Daddy Capulet to embody his family’s “ancient grudge.” So Vela’s Laurence is the single responsible adult female in the area and becomes a moral counterweight to the Capulet warlord and the two clans’ strife and rage.
What’s more typical of this production’s sensibility is not the non-traditional bit of casting; it’s designer John Coyne’s set. It looks bewilderingly like an empty city reservoir. Whatever its metaphoric meaning, the cinder-block cistern has a high, curved back wall with seating for young audience members onstage. They even get to don masks, climb down and party with the Capulet family in the ball where Romeo and Juliet first meet (this provides a way for the theater to pad out the party scene and its ten-member cast).
All of this — and the DTC’s signature technique of actors-running-marathons-in-the-aisles — makes ‘Romeo and Juilet’ a wee bit different then your generic, outdoor, summertime, doublet-and-hose Bardo-rama. It generates a little frisson, creates a theatrical ‘experience.’
But I’d argue all this completely misses the point because the fundamental idea — dress up Shakespeare in sneakers and Berettas and the young’uns’ll forget about all the iambic pentameter — is seriously flawed. Consider ‘The Game of Thrones,’ ‘Lord of the Rings’ ‘The Hunger Games,’ ‘The World of Warcraft’: There’s nothing contemporary-looking about any of these. They’re dense, pseudo-medieval-futurist fantasies. They’re huge, multi-episode sagas, self-contained worlds with their own languages, governments, family trees, even cosmologies. In short, they have many of the exact same ‘impediments’ that make Shakespeare supposedly so alienating. Yet young audiences around the world swarm to them in the millions.
In contrast, when Ferrell applies his various devices and upgrades to Shakespeare, what we get is self-consciousness, we get that tired effect we know is pure poison to teenage interest: trying too hard to join the hip kids. The end of this production even has a surprising, show-offy, protest-suicide. In its wake, one half-expects to hear Roger Daltry belt out 45-year-old lines about this is all just another ‘teenage wasteland.’
Sure, melodrama and self-consciousness and self-pity are primary modes of adolescent expression — that’s why Shakespeare employs them here. But conveying that and dressing it up in a borrowed version are two different things.
What does engage people at the Theater Center is something more basic and heartening: Ferrell’s Romeo. Jake Horowitz is not the typical teen heartthrob. He’s more like Jay Baruchel, charming and stutteringly awkward.
You mean the guy from ‘Man Seeking Woman’ on TV?
Horowitz has got much the same gawky, goofy physicality here. In the famous balcony scene, Romeo brags that Juliet’s love alone makes him dare to sneak into the Capulet family home just to see her (“Thy kinsmen are no stop to me!”). But Horowitz delivers the lines with an over-eager, nervous quaver in his voice. Even the clunky set — a wall flips up like a garage door, creating an unstable-looking ledge for the two lovers — actually helps in this instance, underscoring Horowitz’ awkwardness (Thy kinsmen are no stop — um, how do I climb on to this thing?)
Both Horowitz and Kerry Warren — who has a good mix of innocence and high spirits as Juliet — actually get chuckles in the scene. A good sign. That’s what makes the couple feel fresh and contemporary. Horowitz and Warren add a layer of credible, adolescent angst and vulnerability. And that’s much harder to do than re-arranging the seats onstage or throwing in some ammo and some emo tunes.
Forget all those things, forget the guitars and the audience participation. Make us feel Romeo and Juliet are real and alive — like the oblivious, lovesick, Snapchat-mad teenagers irritating us in the audience. Make us feel they’re real, so that when Romeo and Juliet do die, we feel what it means to actually lose a pair of bright, eager, promising young lovers, that two teenage lives were truly wasted for nothing, for less than nothing, for a family quarrel so old and unimportant Shakespeare never even bothers to explain what started it.
That’s how you engage an audience. Young or old.