If there’s anything in Shakespeare that always works, no matter how roughly handled, it is the love story of Romeo and Juliet. For decades, I have watched youthful audiences fall quiet and settle in: Yes, this is really how it really is. This is what grownups just don’t get.
The better the actors, the better that core of supreme love works. All sorts of outrageous fantasies may be smeared around them. Emphasis can be leveraged in whatever direction fashion prefers. The whole thing could be done underwater, by only women or men, on horseback, in outer space or maybe during total darkness, as long as the words remain; “Parting is such sweet sorrow…”
The Old Globe has excelled at casting this time. There really are only six roles that count and the Globe aced them for the production presently on view, a show which will long be remembered for a couple of those performances and, well, for its choreography.
Nothing to do with Prokofiev or “West Side Story.” Instead… let me set the scene:
Most of the stage is a sandbox. Vertical rear panels sometimes pivot to reveal interiors but mostly serve as a projection surface for a slash of photo-mural, maybe a low aerial shot of contemporary downtown Verona. Adults are in cocktail-dressy with a whiff of Euro-snooty, maybe mafia. There’s a party going on, with waiters bearing drinks and bites and a pianist tinkling away beside a Liberace candelabra.
The host, an obviously prosperous establishment papa, is jubilant because a titled nobleman wants to marry his daughter Juliet, a lissome teenager more ready to branch out than settle down. So he decides to show off the goods by commanding her to perform for the guests. Sighing, she moves down center to a toy piano lugged in by the servants and, with an air of resignation suggesting she’s too old for this sort of thing, begins a very rudimentary tapping at that piano while sizing up the audience. Then, in a moment that I predict will move right into the undying folklore of the Globe, she begins to sing:
“Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl…”
The real piano player takes up the tune, the recorded band joins him and suddenly, as the mirror ball flashes, we’re off in the disco with the whole cast pounding the sand to Barry Manilow’s cha-cha hit about a Brazilian nightclub vignette, “Copacabana.”
It’s safe to say, I think, that Manilow’s lyrics have nothing to do with the rest of Romeo and Juliet. But I’m sure of two things: (1) This will be one of those never-forgotten moments in the theatre not only because it’s such a goofy non sequitur but also because (2) Louisa Jacobson nails it!
Yellow hair flying, long limbs as precise as pistons, chin up and voice ripping, she compels the rest of the company to prance right along with her and love doing it. Rarely, in Noel Coward’s memorable line, has cheap music been more potent.
So little wonder Romeo, crashing the party with some pals, is gobsmacked by this apparition, instantly forgetting all about somebody named Rosaline and declaring emphatically, “…I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” This Romeo is a Montague, his family blood-feud enemies of Juliet’s Capulets, and thus is ignited the tale that will outlive us all.
Aaron Clifton Moten is a Romeo as irresistible in his own, more muted way, as Jacobson’s Juliet. He is the guy everybody wants to hang around, a comfortable mixture of charm and smarts with the passion and courage to see and seize this unique moment. From their first words together, it’s not so much that nothing else matters. Nothing else exists.
This Globe R&J has been staged by the company’s artistic boss, Barry Edelstein, with considerable thought and effort. Given a pair of leading artists like Jacobson and Moten, he has been able to find the sweet spot between the characters’ youth and the actors’ maturity, and that’s the key to this particular masterpiece. A few notions don’t work – having a pair of children wandering about at the beginning and end is cute though pointless – but others do. It’s a generally sensitive trimming of the text and the concept is never annoying. Essentially, he suggests we enjoy the detailing but concentrate on the mainstream of the poetry.
So Ben Chase as the restless trouble-maker Mercutio, is unburdened by many (though not all) of those flashy Elizabethan “Queen Mab” fairy phantasies and left to competently drive the plot (though the perfunctory swordplay is clumsy). And Cornell Womack is encouraged to be an old Capulet corpulent, loud and despotic.
In the two most important supporting roles, Jesse J. Perez as Friar Laurence and Candy Buckley as Juliet’s old nurse enrich the lovers’ tightening reality with a flavoring of individual personality. (I do, however, miss an emphasis on Shakespeare’s soft moments of hopeless surrender to Fate: III, v, 219 for Nurse; V, iii, 59 for Friar, if you’re keeping score. This, of course, is personal taste.)
Everybody else is fine, really, quite spiffy in their light summer outfits by Judith Dolan. I’m not quite comfortable with all that sand – pity the wardrobe people – and the tendency of Stephen Strawbridge to light it into odd colors. Takeshi Kata’s sand pit, panel and simple dressing does, however, place the show into a clean, minimal look that leaves room for what it’s all about, these two star-crossed lovers.
Justin Gray is the onstage pianist, negotiating stuff from Eric Satie and Phillip Glass to Barry M. plus some appropriate musings and borrowings by composer Mark Bennett.
Pondering Romeo and Juliet on a Globe stage warms up all kinds of memories, going back to 1966, when Lauri Peters and Jon Voight played the roles with Will Geer as the friar. There have been other versions, including Penny Fuller in 1974 with John Glover as a slippery Mercutio, but none that so enchanted me until now.
Further afield, I always try to put in an endorsement of the lovely 1954 film with Laurence Harvey and Susan Shentall, an actress who never worked again. I’m not a fan of more recent film treatments, though I did find Clair Danes in the Baz Luhrmann version almost cancelled out the unfortunate Romeo of Leonardo DiCaprio. What I liked about that movie was the way a modern-dress version handled all the lines about swords and blades: Those were the tradenames of elaborate pistols carried by the rival punks.
The Tom Stoppard film Shakespeare in Love inspired great giggles about rewrites of a script first called Romeo and Etheland probably helped peddle the excellent BBC series “Upstart Crow,” still quite available.
But it’s impossible to leave the subject without a salute to the all-time, over-the-top burlesque on the play, from the fantastic 1980 West End and Broadway hit of Nicholas Nickleby, an eight-hour adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1839 novel. In the book, the fictional Crummels Company of touring actors presents an “adjusted” version of Romeo and Julietwith all stops out by a large company of Britain’s best actors. Details pale in comparison with actually seeing it on the imperfect but priceless film recording.
(Continues outdoors in the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre at 8 nightly except Mondays through Aug. 31, 2019, and thereafter at 7 some nights through Sept. 15.)