12 Winters Blog

A truly delightful Romeo and Juliet

Posted in July 2011 by Ted Morrissey on July 29, 2011

Second only to Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet is the Shakespeare play I’ve seen staged most — only because the famous love story is staged so frequently — and there’s no question that the production I saw last evening at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington, Illinois, was by the far the most imaginative (while staying true to the text) and most emotionally engaging I’ve experienced. Directed by Doug Finlayson, the Festival production was truly delightful.

As one would expect, the portrayals of the title characters (played by Dylan Paul and Laura Rook) were at the heart (ha) of the production’s success — and I want to speak to these portrayals in some detail in a moment — but Finlayson took a number of creative risks in his treatment of what could be the best-known and most-read of Shakespeare’s plays (I’m basing my statement on the fact that so many high school freshmen read the play), and every roll of the creative dice was a winner. Moreover, judging from audience reactions, I know I’m not alone in labeling the production a triumph.

In the interest of time and reader attention span, I won’t try to speak to every risky choice made in the Festival production, but I do want to underscore a few. One was in the production’s costuming (designed by Linda Pisano). Often directors set Shakespeare plays in more contemporary settings (for example, a couple of years ago I saw another marvelous production of Romeo and Juliet, by the famed Acting Company, situated in 1920s Mississippi), and the costuming of course is instrumental in communicating and selling that setting choice. For the Festival production, however, the costuming was all over the map — with some characters dressing in Renaissance-style wardrobe, others looking more like extras in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and still others appearing as if they’d just come from shooting a Gap commercial, in jeans and trendy jackets … to name just a few apparent influences, and these influences were often mixed together for individual costumes.

I’ve seen some productions of Romeo and Juliet in which the costuming was designed to delineate between the feuding Capulets and Montagues, almost as if they were sports teams wearing home and away colors; but the costuming in the Festival production was no help whatsoever in figuring out family loyalties — especially when the fight choreographer (D. C. Wright) had the combatants moving in intersecting chaotic circles, thus further confusing the audience as to who was opposing who, especially early in the production.

The “confusion” of costumes — mixing and matching across centuries and geographies — and the chaotic fight scenes worked to emphasize the absurdity of the feud in the first place.  That is to say, even a careful perusal yields a sameness about the Capulets and Montagues — any differences which were so profound that they should result in a bloodfeud either never existed or have long since disappeared. This point is emphasized in the play’s final scene, in the Capulet vault, when the Prince asks, “Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague, / See what a scourge is laid upon your hate …” (5.3.290-91). In other words, here, among these dead, there appear no family distinctions whatsoever.

Another artistic risk in the play is the use of contemporary top-40 music interspersed with more traditional compositions — perhaps most notably Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” when Romeo and Juliet first meet and instantly fall in love at the Capulet masquerade ball. In fact, the Katy Perry song plays for the first time as the teenagers ascend a platform at the front of the stage, creating an almost cinematic (or TV) effect of focusing the audience’s attention on the pair to the exclusion of everything else happening on stage, the way that a framing close-up would work on the screen, silver or plasma.

Let’s talk about the portrayals of the leads for a moment. Both young actors, Dylan Paul and Laura Rook, are quite wonderful as they embrace the youthfulness and immaturity of the title characters. After all, we often forget that Juliet is only thirteen and Romeo not much older, fifteen or sixteen. As such, the famous garden scene is touching and romantic, but also very funny as the characters’ awkwardness is underscored in a way I haven’t seen before — giving a new dimension to a scene that is arguably the most famous in all of literature.

By far, though, the most interesting and complex character in the play is Juliet — and with whom the most risk is taken in the Festival production. She is played as downright childish in the beginning, tomboyishly roughhousing with her little brother and cousins, carrying around a stuffed animal (a lion — symbol of power, especially masculine power, even though it’s the lionesses who hunt and supply food to the pride). When Juliet enters the masquerade ball, her status as thirteen-year-old beams forth thanks to her costume, and the way the actor carries herself of course. Juliet wears a colorful and fun dress  that ends above the knee, along with equally colorful butterfly wings. We at first see her from only the waist up, and when she walks into full view, we see that she has “topped off” her ensemble with pink high-top Chucks — a marvelous touch that takes the audience completely by surprise. She could be any adorable thirteen-year-old going to a junior high Halloween party.

In the famous garden scene, Juliet carries her stuffed lion toy onto the balcony. She is wearing a cloak and hood of pale green. After Romeo, awkwardly, makes his presence known, Juliet ultimately loses the toy and cloak, thus revealing an alluring bare-shouldered nightgown beneath. It seems that in this brief scene Juliet transforms from a toy-carrying tomboy to a sensual young woman. This transformation is also communicated via the butterfly emblem that we associate with Juliet throughout. Besides her butterfly costume, she wears a small butterfly barrette in her hair in several scenes, and there is a large cotton sheet with a picture of a butterfly that serves several purposes: banner, bridal bedsheet, and ultimately funeral shroud. The butterfly is appropriately juvenile (how many teenage girls festoon their lockers, notebooks, bedrooms, and body parts! with butterflies?), but it also represents dramatic transformation in nature, maturing from caterpillar to butterfly, or from girl- to womanhood. It’s also worth noting that Juliet refers to Romeo, in 3.2, as “[s]ole monarch of the universal earth” (94, my emphasis), perhaps stressing, in the context of the Festival production, the kindredness of the newlyweds.

I was especially delighted that the Festival was doing Romeo and Juliet this year because the play is one of several subtexts I tinker with in my recently completed novel, “An Untimely Frost” — the title of which is taken from 4.4 when Capulet says of his daughter (prematurely) that “Death lies on her like an untimely frost” (55). In a later chapter in my novel, the protagonist attends an oddball production of Romeo and Juliet, so I spent several weeks studying the play to write that chapter in particular.

All in all, it was a typically terrific evening at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (in spite of the heat and humidity), where I enjoyed a production of The Winter’s Tale just last Saturday.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter

Pathfinding

The Winter’s Tale and other literary happenings

Posted in July 2011 by Ted Morrissey on July 24, 2011

I had the pleasure of attending a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival last evening in Bloomington, Illinois. I’ve been attending the Festival for years and am always impressed and pleased with its productions, some of which are risk-taking, like 2008’s Titus Andronicus, which channeled a kind of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome motif while employing a heavy-metal soundtrack (and, for my money, it worked), or last season’s The Tempest, which suggested that the entirety of the play was taking place in some sort of ethereal space and not on solid ground (I liked it) — while other productions are much more conservative in their staging. This Winter’s Tale, directed by Deb Alley, tended toward the conservative.

The most obvious manifestation of this conservatism was the deletion of Time, personified, from the text. Sometimes an actual character, sometimes a chorus, Time opens the fourth act by emphasizing the swift passage of time (in the context of The Winter’s Tale, sixteen years evaporate in an instant) and transitioning into the spring/summer section of the play. The Festival production eliminates this first scene of Act IV altogether, and 4.2’s exchange between Polixenes and Camillo serves as the transitional device. In more traditional readings of the play, time stands still in the nation of Sicilia, where the action opens (and closes), but the sixteen years have progressed in Bohemia, the site of 4.2 through 4.4, and thus the characters have aged. However, with the excision of Time and 4.1 in the Festival production, time’s passage has not been arrested in Sicilia, evidenced by the graying of hair and faltering of vision among the characters when we return to Sicilia for Act V.

The removal of this whimsical element in the play (that is, Time’s appearance and his freezing of time in the winter section of the play) lays the groundwork for a more conservative climax, which virtually eliminates Shakespeare’s ambiguity from the climactic event, and in my mind simplifies and makes less interesting the event. In the beginning of the play, Sicilia’s Queen Hermione is unfairly accused of adultery and is imprisoned by her suddenly insane (with jealousy?) husband, King Leontes; and we are told that because of the ordeal, Hermione perishes. In the final scene, 5.3, after Leontes has been reunited with his daughter Perdita (it’s a long story — go see the play), he is presented with a statue of Hermione — a statue which shortly comes to life. It is unclear in the text of the play if we are witnessing a supernatural event (a la the freezing of time) or if Hermione has merely been in hiding somewhere for sixteen years and is reintroduced as a “statue” for dramatic effect (dramatic within the context of the action of the play).

The Festival’s production definitely privileges the more conservative interpretation; through the actions of the characters, especially Paulina, the alleged maker of the statue, and through the graying of Hermione’s hair, it seems clear that the flesh-and-blood Hermione has only been playing at being a statue. The whimsical, the supernatural has been expunged from the scene, which is an extension of its being expunged from the play as a whole. The conservatism of the Festival’s interpretation shows up in other, more subtle ways. For instance, the contrast between the winter-Sicilia-tragedy half of the play and the summer-Bohemia-comedy half is evident in the costuming (especially the palette’s shift from largely monochromic to widely colorful) and the set (especially the lighting’s shift from blue spectrum to orange spectrum). While costuming and set/lighting do suggest the contrast, one has to look closely to see it. Another conservative choice would be the physical absence of the bear that famously chases Antigonus from the stage in 3.3. According to the Norton Shakespeare’s footnotes, in the Bard’s day an actual bear very well may have been brought onto the stage to “chase” Antigonus, but

[m]odern productions vary significantly in their representation of the bear. Some strive for realism, having a bearskin-clad actor or a mechanical likeness of a bear pass across a darkened stage illuminated only by the occasional lightning bolt. Other productions are more stylized, suggesting a bear by the obvious artifice of a mask or symbol.

The Festival removes a step or two further, and the bear is represented merely by its roaring and the terrorized expression of Antigonus as he runs (unsuccessfully) for his life.

One may argue that by eliminating elements like personified Time and an actor in a bear-suit, the Festival production is being the opposite of conservative — that it’s straying from more traditional, more textbound versions of The Winter’s Tale; and, on the one hand, that’s true, but I guess what I’m suggesting is that the Festival’s interpretation is more conservative (that is, less fanciful) than Shakespeare’s vision of the story. I have some ideas as to why these choices were made, and how they affect our overarching reading of the play — but that sounds like the stuff of an academic paper.

To be clear, I enjoyed the Festival production very much, and I encourage directors to stray from traditional staging choices and to play with the text, even if those choices and those edits seem, to me, less whimsical than what the playwright had in mind in the first place.

Anyway, the Festival is also doing Romeo and Juliet, and I plan to see that within the next week or so.

In June, I happily participated in the Poets & Painters event at the H. D. Smith Gallery in the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Illinois. The event was a joint venture between the Prairie Art Alliance and Springfield Poets and Writers (of which I’m a proud member). I was planning on providing a link to the poems and artwork that were presented that evening (including my poem “Anima”), but the page seems to be missing in action at the moment. If it rematerializes, I’ll update this post.

This month I’ve been participating in a poetry workshop organized by Lisa Higgs and Tracy Zeman (a link to Tracy’s poem “Grass for Bone” in Beloit Poetry Journal) at the Vachel Lindsay Home. Unfortunately I had to miss the second of four sessions, but I’ve been enjoying them very much and getting a lot out of them. I’ve mainly been focusing on writing some new short stories and putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of my newest novel, “An Untimely Frost,” but I did write a poem for the workshop; and in general Lisa and Tracy have had me thinking about language in ways I wouldn’t have been if not for the workshop this summer.

The workshop session I missed was time well spent nonetheless as I met with the Friends of Sherman Library book club July 12 to discuss my novel Men of Winter. It was great fun to talk with avid and enthusiastic readers, and they indulged me to read my brand-new short story “Crowsong for the Stricken,” which was also fun (for me at least). In addition to “Crowsong” I’ve also written a story titled “Primitive Scent,” and I’m at work on a third new story. I have in mind the next novel I want to begin writing, but now I’m thinking of postponing that project to write a collection of stories all set in the same weird little Midwestern village, the setting of these three new stories. We’ll see.

On the reading front, I continue to make my way through War and Peace (on page about 840 out of 1,200), and also Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (for my nightstand read) — but I did take a few days away from Tolstoy to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (translated by Edith Grossman), and liked it very much: funny, haunting, touching — all the things one would expect from a Nobel Laureate.

tedmorrissey.com