BWW Reviews: Folger Theatre's ROMEO AND JULIET Rivets with Modern Relevance
Woe unto the society that undervalues its teenage girls. From the Pakistani Malala Yousafzai's of today to the Joan of Arcs, Ruby Bridges, and Anne Franks of history, young womanhood's quest for self-determination challenges our social mores as few other phenomena do.
The story, of course, personifies Western society's pivot toward courtly love and romance as the organizing principle for marriage, away from the centuries-old tradition of marriage for economic and political advantage (a perspective which clearly still informs marriage in the much of the world today). In defiance of their families' rivalry, Romeo and Juliet---both played as bookish youths drawn to each other's minds as well as bodies---meet and quickly long for romantic union.
In this most intimate production, however, Juliet (played with fire and spunk by Erin Weaver) soon becomes the lightning rod around which the play's conflict revolves. She and Romeo (played with depth and conviction by Michael Goldsmith) dare to presume that they, mere youths, can in fact be masters of their own fates.
Yes, their families are politically at odds, but the real issue here is that Juliet's domineering, even abusive father has arranged for his 13-year-old daughter to marry the prosperous and older, Paris (earnestly played by Joe Mallon), whose fortunes promise to further advance the Capulet family's economic success. And Lord Capulet is not a man to be denied, as Juliet's mother, Lady Capulet (played with aristocratic precision by the stunningly beautiful Shannon Koob) can attest. Brian Kykstra's Lord Capulet is a fury of patriarchal entitlement when he responds to his teenage daughter's impassioned defiance of his wishes. His outrage reminded me of the recent viral YouTube video of a Texas judge beating his Internet-surfing teenage daughter into submission. And here we thought teenage rebellion was a modern thing.
The profoundly contemporary feel of Posner's production continues Folger's glorious embrace of the intimacy of the Bard. Folger continues to turn the secluded closeness of its Elizabethan space into a hall of confession, where the deepest secrets of Shakespeare's characters are shared-whispered even-to an audience of sympathetic intimates. Gone is the mannered pretense of Shakespeare's language, replaced by an emotional directness and authenticity that speaks from the heart to a modern audience.
Into Juliet and Romeo's unfortunate impasse, Shakespeare brings the hope afforded by wiser elders: Juliet's Nurse (played with ribald humor and warm affection by Sherrie L. Edelen) and Friar Lawrence (played with intelligence and empathy by Eric Hissom). Through them, the better angels of society's nature strive to outsmart the controlling powers that be. Edelen's Nurse---truly one of the great roles for a character actress---delivers with incisive comic timing as she surreptitiously aids Juliet in her courtship with Romeo. Later though, even the Nurse demurs before the iron hand of Juliet's father and urges her young charge to make the best of an unwinnable situation and marry Paris. Friar Lawrence takes the clandestine support for Romeo and Juliet's romance several steps further, famously arranging for Juliet to fake her death and thus escape her marriage to Paris (bigamist act that it would be given her secret and lovingly consumated marriage to Romeo).
We know of course, that the best laid plans will go tragically wrong. We know that Romeo will not receive the Friar's message of the ploy. We know that, on learning that his beloved Juliet has "died," he will subsequently kill himself. We also know that Juliet, upon awakening from her faux death to find Romeo dead, will kill herself as well to join her Romeo.
Folger's production, however, also highlights several plot points that have either faded from memory or been understated in other well-known film or stage productions of this classic tragedy. In addition to its focus on the subordination of young women by all-powerful fathers, this production also brings home the fact that it is only when Romeo's good friend, the rowdy Mercutio (played with vigorous, manly swagger by Brad Koed) challenges Juliet's Capulet cousin Tybalt (convincingly played by Rex Daugherty with seething, squelched anger over his family's dishonor from Juliet's forbidden love) that the feud between the two families turns bloody and renders Romeo and Juliet's marriage impossible. The famous street brawl scene that leaves both Mercutio dead by Tybalt's hand and Tybalt dead by Romeo's hand is expertly choreographed by fight director Casey Dean Kaleba and forcefully executed by Koed, Bougherty and Goldsmith.