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REVIEW: Splendid Romeo and Juliet (Guthrie Theater)

Romeo (Ryan-James Hatanaka, right) unmasks himself to Juliet (Kate Eastman). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Shá Cage (Lady Capulet), Kate Eastman (Juliet), and Candace Barrett Birk (Nurse) in the Guthrie Theater’s current production of Romeo and Juliet.

No one was surprised when American Theatre Magazine announced that Shakespeare will once again be the most produced playwright of the current American theatre season, though there were some who expressed frustration. Why, they ask, do professional theatres mostly choose to stage the best-known, well-worn works of centuries-dead playwrights like Shakespeare – or say, Aeschylus – often to the neglect of new plays that better represent contemporary sensibilities and presumably respond to and challenge current crises and situations?

I don’t share this frustration, but the root issues came to mind while watching Joseph Haj’s splendid production of Romeo and Juliet, which plays at the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage through October 28. Yes, it’s the old play, but when it’s staged as creatively as it is here it feels both old and new.

The Guthrie’s production is not flawless, but it spoke to me in ways that I hadn’t experienced with Romeo and Juliet before – and isn’t that what a great production of Shakespearean play or of a classical work is supposed to do? To make the familiar strange again or at least allow us to better hear the music we’ve heard before in a different key? Doing this doesn’t require adding heavy-handed innovations or gimmicks or radical re-contextualizing the plays. (and, by the way, setting Twelfth Night in Edwardian England yet again or one of the tragedies in Fascist Europe doesn’t count as innovative, or even interesting, at this point).

While Haj brings some fresh twists to the play – and one or two dazzling new flashes — his hand is light and his approach, mostly suggestive. It’s more a matter of drawing out under-explored or neglected layers of meanings (there are so many to choose from) or drawing attention to a simple phrase that seemed unremarkable before but now appears crucial to, say, our understanding of character’s drive or motivation. I don’t think I fully appreciated till now how funny Romeo (a superb Ryan-James Hatanaka) is at the outset of the tragedy. This is the first time Queen Mab speech brought me almost to the point of tears, and I doubt that I can ever think of Mercutio (Kelsey Didion) the same way again.

Perhaps one reason why Shakespeare’s plays are so resilient is that they seem to invite re-imaginings and to metamorphosize sometimes from one decade to the next.   These days it’s difficult to think of The Tempest outside of European colonialism (and Montaigne), but go back 40 years and Prospero appeared as a model of benign paternalism. And Julius Caesar can read differently in the course of a few months   The stories – at least the main plot lines of the “great tragedies” — are old, but then the greatness of those plays was never primarily about the stories. “Western literature’s greatest appropriator,” Shakespeare borrowed most of them (the stories) anyway. That a play as iconic and well-worn as Romeo and Juliet defies stabilization has more to do with its rich ambiguity and its nuanced and inexhaustibly complex and sometimes exquisite language.

So what specifically is strange and new about this production? Well, for one thing, Haj puts Romeo closer to the center. In almost every previous staging I’ve seen, Juliet (Kate Eastman) appears more or less as the star of the play. Certainly when the play begins, she is the stronger and more interesting half of the pair: decisive where Romeo is flakey; she’s eloquent, while he begins the play speaking some of the worst love rhetoric in the canon (after Falstaff). But Hatanaka’s Romeo is richly individualized and he is anything but predictable. Hatanaka is delightful in the early scenes, as he darts about the stage and scribbles bad poetry in a little notebook. The wanna-be Petrarchan lover, wounded by his lady’s (Rosa-LINE’s) strict chastity, flops on the floor and moans with the sprit of a ham actor (Hatanaka’s not – he’s superb).

Juliet (Kate Eastman) ponders as Romeo (Ryan-James Hatanaka) looks on. Photo by Jenny Graham.

There is also not a trace of girlish winsomeness or tweensy goofiness in Eastman’s smart and self-possessed Juliet. This Juliet may be inexperienced, but she’s not naïve. When in the balcony scene Juliet says goodnight and Romeo objects: “O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?”, Juliet doesn’t pretend to not know what he’s talking about. Watch Eastman’s deadpan as she cuts to the chase: “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?”

Haj also doesn’t follow the standard formula of emphasizing the character’s youth to the neglect of their singularity. Too often, we’re given a story about puppy love among goofy or rebellious teenagers whose hormones get the best of them. The problem with that approach is it tends to level Romeo and Juliet to teenage and tweensy stereotypes, rather than unique individuals. Juliet is 13 and Romeo just a few years older, but in this play they seem like the most mature people in Verona and less – not more – reckless than their flighty and infantile elders. Watch Lord Capulet (Andrew Weems) stamp his feet and wave his fists when Juliet asks him to postpone her wedding (to Paris) a few days: when he doesn’t get his way, he’s a toddler having a tantrum.

Eastman’s Juliet and Hatanaka’s Romeo are not typical fun-loving teens, but serious and slightly nerdy. They’re hardly born rebels. Juliet “looks to like” whoever her parents wish her to, and Romeo stays out of the violent turf wars his friends go in for. Even Capulet remarks that Romeo’s reputation as a young gentlemen is solid. They’re “nice kids”, even if they’re not quite willing to sacrifice their happiness on behalf of some ancient feud they want no part of.

One gets the sense that if Romeo were “some other name,” and Juliet wasn’t born a Capulet – or if their parents weren’t so insistently tribal – the two would rush off and joyfully share their wedding plans with their parents. Besides, if they were really reckless, why would they bother to get married? They could just get it on that first night. Instead, Juliet advises Romeo to sleep on it; if he feels the same way tomorrow, he should make arrangements for them to get properly married in a church – before God. Haj shows the two trying to work within the normative rules set forth by custom and religion.

Sha Cage gives a nuanced performance as Lord Capulet’s trophy wife, who tries to compensate for the emptiness in her life with expensive haute couture frocks. Watch the way Cage stands a little nervously behind her husband in a modelling pose and tries to force a smile.

Jennifer Moeller’s contemporary-styled costumes highlight the schisms in wealth and status among the characters. The servants appear in dystopian shredded shirts and pants, while the ruling families are richly clad in smartly cut silk suits; Lady Montague wears Rodeo Drive pantsuits and Moeller dresses Cage to the teeth in clingy black gowns sometimes with airy gold highlights. The always wonderful Candace Barrett Birk embraces without overselling the Nurse’s bawdiness, and doesn’t stint on physicalizing some of the lewd humor. The Nurse is a tricky part to play since she outwardly affects piety and selfless devotion, even as her speech betrays bitterness and a sinister sense of possessiveness; Birk meets the double challenge with aplomb. None of the elderly characters are without a certain degree of creepiness.

Fighting breaks out in the Guthrie Theater’s 2017 production of Romeo and Juliet, which features costumes designed by Jennifer Moeller. Photo by Jenny Graham.

One concern with the production is an occasional inconsistency in style and rhythm.Pace is all-important in this play, and the action in the latter half has to keep moving forward like a train whose speed is gradually increasing. The inconsistency occurs only in the scenes that features the “grown-up” characters. To get the full tragic effect, we need to feel that Romeo and Juliet are barreling down ineluctably to their catastrophic end.

Eastman and Hatanaka and most of the younger characters all keep the energy moving forward; but in the scenes that feature the older characters, some of the actors tend to slow down or take prolonged pause, lessening the tension. Occasionally, too, the style of delivery and mix of highly naturalistic and presentational styles clash. But these are quibbles and they do not detract from the overall excellence of the production or the very real pathos it achieves at its close. Lamar Jefferson is passionate and dignified as Benvolio and Stan Demidoff delivers an appropriately brutal Tybalt.

To borrow from the cosmological rhetoric, I’d give this play five stars – or all I had – if I did that sort of thing. Shakespeare is produced so often, but I doubt you’ll see another quite so beautiful as the Guthrie’s any time soon. Highly recommended.

Romeo and Juliet plays through October 28 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Kit Bix