I'd forgotten how much the play "Romeo & Juliet" annoyed me until I saw the Tennessee Shakespeare Festival's version Friday night in Bell Buckle.
Oh, don't get me wrong -- I loved it and plan on going back for more this weekend! But as a mom, I just want to toss a bucket of cold water over these over-reacting, hormone-ridden teenagers and avoid the tragedy altogether. I also wanted to jerk a knot in the good Friar Lawrence's belt for being such an enabler.
By the time the play ended, the stage covered in bodies and remorseful parents, I realized just how skillfully I'd been manipulated by director Lane Davies and the cast. Instead of a play about tragic teenage love (which does have most adults rolling their eyes and saying 'Puh-leaaze!), Davies turns it into a play about making wrong choices. Romeo's choice to go to the ball at the Capulet's mansion? Wrong. Tybalt's choice to ignore Capulet's order to leave Romeo alone? Wrong. Friar Lawrence's choice to hide the marriage instead of taking it directly to the prince as a means of promoting peace between the two feuding families? Wrong, wrong, wrong.
There were some right choices, however. Davies' choice of Patrick Waller in the plum role of Mercutio was right, right, right. Waller infused the role with a level of energy rarely seen outside of action movies, while never losing the droll delivery that makes his two main dialogues so well known and loved. From the comically bawdy exchange with Nurse to his death scene -- in my opinion, the best Shakespeare ever wrote -- Waller's Mercutio commands the stage.
Another right choice was Nurse herself. Or himself. Itself? Davies reverted to Shakespearian Elizabethan tradition and gave the famous role to David Alford, who, oddly enough, seems to have spent his entire summer in hilarious drag. Alford played Flute in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the rustic "actor" who had to take on the female role of Thisbe in the play within the play. In Midsummer, Flute is reluctant to play the female role at first, then leaps into with suspiciously hilarious abandon, tossing his yarn braids and flirting coquettishly with the Thebes court.
In Romeo and Juliet, Alford tones down his female impersonation -- a little. His character, Nurse, is largely a source of comic relief in the first part of the play and there can be a tendency to overplay that aspect of her personality. When her funnier moments are overemphasized, it makes her serious moments harder to believe.
Davies and Alford worked to prevent this, and again, they made the right choices. While Alford's version of the constantly blathering Nurse bears a passing resemblance to Dame Edna in her delivery, her touches of humanity come through, even in the early scenes, such as when she pats Juliet's cheek and reflects on her own, long-dead daughter.
By the time you reach the scene where she thinks Juliet has died, and she rocks on the floor clutching her young charge's doll to her chest and weeping, you forget there is man under the dress. You forget there is an actor on the stage. You just feel for the poor old nurse, her pathos overwhelming. He is no longer a man in women's clothing, angling for easy (and occasionally bawdy) jokes. She is the nurse, and her grief is yours.
Davies' "Romeo and Juliet" is probably the most energized version I've seen. Instead of insipid teenagers lounging in the shadows and reciting emo poetry, his young lovers flit and charge. They run up and down stairs and jump on benches and wave arms and knives and hair -- Juliet's hair should have gotten its own billing. It is as though all of that teenage sexual energy is bottled up and percolating and it has to get out somehow! I remember those charged emotions of my own long-ago youth (yeah, kids, I know, when my courtiers showed up on brontosaurus-back) and it struck me as far more true than the moping in the shadows and deep sighs that I've seen in other productions. Face it -- for teenagers, love is sex and sex is right now.
The fight scenes also add their own energy. David Wilkerson, who plays Romeo, also choreographed the scenes and they came off about as realistic as they can in live theater. When miscues happen -- and it's live theater, folks, miscues happen -- the actors are quick to cover it, and you would have had to have seen the rehearsal to even know they were there.
(Actors -- just curious. Have you ever been in a play in which a gun is supposed to fire and it fired every single time, on cue, every single performance? Nah, didn't think so.)
Although Romeo and Juliet got rained out last Sunday evening, there are still four more performances -- Thursday through Sunday of this week. Please go see this play -- it will make you laugh, gasp and cry and is well worth the trip to Bell Buckle.
It's definitely a good choice to make.
P.S. Be sure and check out that good looking redcoat, the tall boy who flies onto the stage after Mercutio has been killed, demanding to know where Tybalt is. That's my Ben, and he actually got a line!
-- Mary Reeves is a staff writer for the Times-Gazette. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.