BWW Review: HSC ROMEO AND JULIET Reminds Us That Shakespeare is Entertainment
Despite a general American theory (one that didn't exist until after the Astor Place Riot of 1849) that Shakespeare is snobbish, or else that his works are boring and you don't want to see them, America and the world thought of Shakespeare as general entertainment for everyone. One of the cultural hangovers of that truth is that we all know of teen couple Romeo and Juliet and refer to them constantly when talking about lovers, or possibly about stupid teens doing stupid things. It's still taught in schools, where bowdlerized editing and restraint in teaching tend to make what should be strong, exciting stuff come out looking like long, boring, incomprehensible, and eminently forgettable pain. I was fortunate to have a mother who adored Shakespeare (for their 50th anniversary I took my father to Stonehenge and my mother to Stratford-Upon-Avon), and who made the works real for me, but most students aren't so lucky.
Fortunately Gamut Theatre Group's Harrisburg Shakespeare Company knows how to fix the problem. Their Educational Outreach Program trims major Shakespearian plays usually covered in schools into 90-minute presentations with the plot intact, all major highlights included, and short but active narrations filling gaps where larger trimming has been done. It might be tempting for diehard Shakespeare fans to dub heavily cut plays as short-attention-span Shakespeare, but even the best of us can have times when long scenes between almost-extra characters are simply painful, when three hours of entertainment is harder on the posterior than it should be, and when we realize that in Shakespeare's day, the audience was sitting in a bar, drinking. In short, we've made Shakespeare less fun than it should bE. Harrisburg Shakespeare Company is capable of putting entertainment value back in, even without too many extra drinks.
Trimming fat isn't the only thing that makes HSC's ROMEO AND JULIET fun to watch. For those used to seeing Shakespeare performed as if Shakespeare is God and the actors his priests, declaiming each line of iambic pentameter as if they were praying, there's nothing as refreshing as seeing the theatricality toned down and the characters performed as if they're real people, not theatrical avatars of the saints. Andrew Nyberg's Romeo is a teen unsure of whether the best advice comes from his troublemaking buddy or his priest. Gabriella DeCarli's Juliet is a girl who knows what she wants but not how to get it, and whose parents really don't care what she wants because they know what's best. Tom Weaver's Friar Laurence is a combination of apothecary and youth pastor with an agenda, and, best of all, Clark Nicholson's Mercutio is that guy who's too old to hang with the teens but is the neighborhood walking, talking bad influence on them.
Nicholson's Mercutio is a character we've seen before, by the way, and in popular culture at that - Arthur Fonzarelli is a latter-day Mercutio in Milwaukee, derived from just such a Mercutio as Nicholson's. The Fonz just has more Brylcream and less spectacularly lecherous wit.
Suitable for, and presented to, school students of all age levels, this ROMEO AND JULIET has what everyone really wants of the play - romance, swordfighting, secret plots, massive sneaking around parents and guardians, inter-family rivalries of massive dimensions that nearly rival mafia wars, and in-family dysfunctionality worthy of psychological research. If it has any true on-stage fault, it's the sword dueling, which isn't quite perfectly choreographed. Still, it's exciting even if unrealistic, and students are likely just to be happy to see swords flashing in front of their faces at all, especially as close as they are to the stage at the Gamut theatre.
Directed by Melissa Nicholson, with most of the cast of seven playing multiple roles. Minor roles have been cut, so it's easy to focus on the main characters. Multiple roles are handled well enough that no one should be confused as to character identities. The set is minimal but effective, especially when the smaller prop items combine in the last act to form a heart-shaped memorial.
If anything has the potential to restore Shakespeare to the evening's entertainment that it should be (could we get some pretzels and beer with that TIMON OF ATHENS, please?) rather than feeling as if one were going to a Major Cultural Event requiring somber attention to stilted theatricality, it's Gamut's Educational Outreach productions, unfortunately limited in number though they are. We need more reminders that Shakespeare, even in the tragedies, is fun to watch.
Through Sunday, March 26 at Gamut Theatre, Harrisburg. Visit gamuttheatre.org for tickets and information.