of the PRINCE of VERONA
The Houses of CAPULET and MONTAGUE
Both alike in Dignity
Do still Disturb the Quiet of our Streets
And FOR THAT OFFENSE
on PAIN of DEATH
House of CAPULET and House of MONTAGUE
Shall be Required to Assemble
in this Public place
All Citizens of Verona shall bear Witness
As they Recount the Tragic Events of
ROMEO and JULIET
These posted notices fill the box office, gift shop, and lobbies of People’s Light, and once the audience enters the theater, they encounter the same proclamation in their playbills and towering over each end of the stage. Director Samantha Reading and Producing Director Zak Berkman (with help from visiting dramaturg Geoff Proehl) have adapted Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into Romeo & Juliet: A Requiem, a production for six actors in the roles of the survivors of the events of the play, with the ambitious goal to serve as a mix of tribute, retrospective, and (hopefully) catharsis and redemption.
Set designer James F. Pyne, Jr. does an excellent job of setting the stage both literally and metaphorically. Constructed to form a perfect mirror image, two sets of gently rising tiers on either side of a green sward mark the tombs of the title characters, flanked by heavy marble benches for contemplation. The hexagonal space contains most of the action, and the bright lighting and greenery give it the bucolic atmosphere of a Shakespeare in the Park production. However, the imposing monuments bearing the Prince’s order loom at each end of the stage, overshadowing the proceedings with purpose.
Costume designer Marla Jurglanis provides similarly well-constructed work with deliberately era-less dress. The Montagues wear cool shades of navy and grey, the Capulets warm browns and reds, but beneath these superficial difference their costumes are near-mirrors of each other – the two feuding families are just as much alike as they are different. Lords Capulet and Montague have the most medieval outfits, wearing long tunics and elaborate sword belts over brocaded shirts; the Ladies Montague and Capulet, meanwhile, have hybrid gowns, sixteenth-century stomachers under a split overdress with high, almost Victorian collars. The Nurse tends to the Puritan, with a linen cap and relatively simple brown dress over a fine silk shift, and the Friar rounds out the cast in a long black coat and cowl as equally appropriate for a cyberpunk as a seminarian. However, over their own clothes the survivors must don the garments of their fallen families: a dark green one-shouldered cloak for Romeo; a golden jeweled capelet for Juliet and red sash for Tybalt; a dashing gold scarf for Mercutio and matching stole for Paris.
The cast is most effective when portraying the main action of Romeo and Juliet. Somewhat ironically, Teri Lamm as the undead Lady Montague adds the most life to the proceedings: her rendition of Romeo flings himself to the ground beneath Juliet’s window in the throes of love, and her version of Juliet captures both the uncertainty and the strength of character beyond her years. Stephen Novelli as Lord Capulet also has a brief turn as Juliet in the masquerade (an adept portrayal of teenage excitement beneath the audience’s snickering) before capturing Capulet’s stentorian rejection of her in Act III, Scene 5. Each member of the cast adds some skillful details of characterization to the production – Brian Anthony Wilson (Lord Montague) portraying Romeo with both gravitas and tenderness; Graham Smith a fiery Mercutio by way of the Friar; Marcia Saunders hitting the perfect balance of the Nurse’s scatterbrained affection; Jeanne Sakata giving Lady Capulet an eloquent grief – but the sum is at times less than its parts. The presentation of the adults’ own personalities when they are not re-enacting the personalities of the lost generation is sadly elusive, and the decision to have most of the cast quietly standing around watching the action adds an artificial distance to the proceedings.
The production centers around the concept of a requiem as both memory and memorial, but unfortunately the justification for this frame device never quite becomes clear. Presumably the adults of Verona are supposed to confront their culpability in the children’s deaths, but nearly all references to the feud itself are cut, which means the attitudes and behaviors that pushed their children to such extremes are never addressed or repudiated. Likewise absent is the reconciliation between Lords Montague and Capulet in the penultimate lines of Shakespeare’s text, offering the grim implication that this cycle of reenacting their children’s last days may continue on forever – even beyond the grave, if Lady Montague’s presence is anything to go by. However, Reading and Berkman’s conceit is quite intriguing and the production itself has many deft touches, from the well-chosen garments of Romeo and Juliet and their peers, to the small flower from Friar Laurence’s soliloquy transforming into Juliet’s sedative and Romeo’s poison, to Lamm’s Lady Montague sitting like patience on a monument well before the play starts until revealing herself, at her leisure, to her husband’s and fellow citizens’ understandable (if remarkably restrained) amazement. Reading’s melding of certain sections of the play (such as intercutting Juliet’s death with her pledges of love in Act II, Scene 2) highlight interesting parallels, and the selection of the twenty-one scenes portray the meat of the story under her able direction. The story of Romeo and Juliet themselves is well-played.
It is easy to see the allure of Reading and Berkman’s transformative work. Reordering the play allows new light to be shed on smaller moments. Veteran Shakespearean actors revisiting roles usually cast with their younger counterparts allows for new interpretations born out of their experiences. And in a time when the news cycles are filled with tragic losses, showing characters reacting to one of the most famous fictional tragedies, mourning and coming to terms with their grief and guilt, provides the hope that our society is capable of similar reflection. People’s Light’s production of Romeo & Juliet: A Requiem offers a new perspective on the classic by showing the characters themselves experiencing it, and thereby making it more present to our own experience.