Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has often been used by theaters to attract younger audiences — there’s nothing like a suicidal love affair between two teenagers to draw millennials out on a hot date. The Dallas Theater Center’s current production strips the play down, makes it contemporary with torn jeans, pop music and gunplay. KERA’s Jerome Weeks sat down with Justin Martin to sort out whether this 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 younger 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’?
Actually, this ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is directed by Joel Ferrell, the DTC associate director who recently staged a cut-down, hard-edged ‘Othello’ for Second Thought Theatre, But yes, the overall aim is still the same, to update Shakespeare’s tragedy for young people, for theatergoers who are completely new to the plays. This begs the questions, does this kind of staging actually appeal to its target audience? And does any of it appeal to theatergoers who aren’t in high school, who may have seen a little Shakespeare before? If we’re not the target audience, will we still find it engaging? These are the questions I have these days when seeing any DTC staging of Shakespeare — ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the fifth since the company moved into the Wyly in 2009.
Now, by far, the best known example of this kind of ‘PG-13’ or YA approach to Shakespeare 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.
Whether you hated it or liked it, this may come as a surprise: That film is now 20 years old. So a lot of the ways we see Shakespeare updated onstage — hip-hop music and ripped jeans, a multi-racial cast waving 9 mm semis instead of swords — these aren’t so bold or new anymore. They’re practically honored traditions. Yet given this task — making Shakespeare’s tragedy relevant today — director Ferrell turned to Luhrmann’s film. He echoes it repeatedly.
Like an hommage?
Hmmm. Maybe. Or like quotations. Let’s call them ‘nods in its direction.’
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. 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.
Well, one of the wildest changes Luhrmann made to Shakespeare’s play was turning Romeo’s friend, the sarcastic, brawling Mercutio, normally the height of macho swagger, into a grand, scene-stealing drag queen (it’s a magnetic turn by Harold Perrineau). Ferrell doesn’t go that revisionary distance, but his Mercutio — given an otherwise disappointingly generic performance by Drew Foster — certainly has more than a flounce of punk camp in one scene. In it, he belts out a rock version of Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech (the music is by Stagger Lee‘s Justin Ellington). He struts on a pool table while sporting a fuzzy fur boa, a guitar and a golden Mardi Gras mask. He’s like something out of a fairly tame ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.’
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?
I think they distract from the dramatic effectiveness of Shakespeare’s drama. And I don’t think they necessarily appeal to young theatergoers, either.
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 millennials awake. He boldly opens the play with the ominous, final death scene. A morgue full of white-shrouded corpses strikes a doom-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 about young love — 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 the role, the good friar gains a different emotional weight, earns more of our attention. Vela’s Laurence is 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 only an angry, abusive Chris Hury as Daddy Capulet to embody this feud’s “ancient grudge.” So Vela’s Laurence is the one responsible adult female around; she’s a moral counterweight to the Capulet warlord and the two clans’ strife and rage.
But what’s more typical of this production’s sensibility (and failures) 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 the show’s 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, sleepy-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 un’s will 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’: They’re all 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, these entertainments have many of the exact same ‘impediments’ that make Shakespeare supposedly so alienating and intimidating. 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 — i.e., pure poison to teenage interest. Basically, the production tries too hard to join the hip kids. The ending even has a surprising, show-offy, protest-suicide. In its wake, one half-expects to hear Roger Daltry belt out 45-year-old lyrics about how what we’ve witnessed is just a ‘teenage wasteland.’
Sure, swooning, romantic melodrama along with self-consciousness and self-pity are primary modes of adolescent expression. That’s why Shakespeare employs them. But conveying them, making us feel how electric they were once in our own sorry teenage selves-in-love — that’s very different than just dressing them up in Urban Outfitter gear.
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?
Yeah, or think of the scrawny, lead cartoon kid in all those ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ movies. Baruchel provides that character’s cracked, pitiful voice.
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 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 the guns, the guitars and the audience participation. Make us feel Romeo and Juliet are just like the oblivious, lovesick, Snapchat-mad teenagers who happen to be irritating us in the audience. Make us feel they’re real and alive, 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 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.
It’s a pleasure, Justin.