Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March, 2004
When I was six or seven years old, shortly after I learned to read, I became enamored of DC comics. The mock mythology of Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Green Latern, etc. became enthralling to me. My parents allowed me to read them as long as I paid for them myself, out of my allowance of 25 cents a week. But the parents of friends of mine would only allow them to read Classics Illustrated comics, which they bought for them. That seemed like a good financial deal to me, and I asked my parents about establishing such an arrangement. They replied that they would rather have me read real comic books while I was young enough to enjoy real comic books, and read real classic literature when I was old enough to enjoy real classic literature. And real classic literature, at whatever age I wanted to read it, was available for free from the public library.
This 90-minute Bare Bard version of Romeo and Juliet, mounted by the Education Department of Shakespeare & Company for their 2004 Spring Tour, is definitely the Classics Illustrated version of the play. And I wonder about the educational wisdom of bringing such a show to elementary and middle school aged children. Surely they should be reading and enjoying Harry Potter or DC comics or whatever the latest juvenile literary rage may be, instead of having fast-food versions of Shakespeare forced upon them.
High school age audiences, being older than Romeo and Juliet themselves in many cases, are plenty old enough to see and enjoy a lively production of the real thing. I remember seeing the Zeffirelli film version when I was in my early teens and suddenly understanding the connection between the awkward physical act of sex and the profoundly life-changing emotion of love. What an important lesson to learn and what better teacher than Shakespeare?
For the first 15-20 minutes of this production, I had to wonder whether I had stumbled in to a performance of The Comedy of Errors by mistake. There were pratfalls aplenty and endless double entendre wherein anything vaguely phallic was hoisted aloft. Romeo and Juliet is a play about teenagers, an age group known for their boisterous energy and fascination with sex jokes, but it is also a play about adults and how their ancient memories of wrongs long past impact the present and the future. All of that was lost in the flying ham-hocks and priapric swordplay.
Once Romeo and Juliet met at the dance, the slapstick slackened and the plot picked up steam. I saw this production with a high school aged audience, who were more than ready to be captivated by the romance and tragedy of the star-crossed lovers. The young girls seated near me immediately proclaimed Brian Weaver’s Romeo as “dreamy,” which he was in that simultaneously attractive and non-threatening way that teenage girls find so inviting.
Katie Atkinson as Juliet sporadically captured the energy and flightiness of a girl not quite 14. She captured it enough that I was convinced to subtract ten or so years from her actual age and buy her as a teenager. Together Weaver and Atkinson made a very attractive and believable pair, creating an important core for the action surrounding them.
This “Bare Bard’ touring production is intentionally lean. Between February and May this company will perform Romeo and Juliet 125 times at 50 schools and a few public venues ranging from New York City in the south to Portland, Maine in the north. Seven actors play all the roles, the set is spare and portable, and the costumes are designed to be easily and quickly changed as well as sturdy enough to stand up to all the pratfalls and swordplay.
Shakespeare & Company has a long and success history of forming for and working with young people in the theatre, and Kevin Coleman, the head of the Education Program and the director of this production is an expert in the field. This experience and expertise shows as this abbreviated version of Romeo and Juliet works very well most of the time. It is a little jarring to have Atkinson play both Juliet and Romeo’s mother, but it is a hoot to watch Tom Wells transform on stage from Juliet’s Nurse to Friar Lawrence. He does more than remove a few layers of padding and petticoats, he becomes another person.
The rest of the cast – Sarah Taylor as Benvolio, Lady Capulet and Sister Joan; Stephen Libby as Lord Montague, Balthasar, and Peter; Robert Serrell as Lord Capulet, Mercutio, and Sampson; and Stephen James Anderson as Paris, the Prince and Tybalt – spend a great deal of time changing clothes. They are all able and entertaining, but in 90 minutes they don’t get to be much more than background to the main plot. It is a little tricky figuring out who is who, particularly when one well-populated scene follows another, but enough hints have been retained or inserted into the script that you catch on quickly enough.
My pedagogical qualms aside, there is no denying that this is a lively and entertaining 90 minutes of theatre. I can see a nine or ten year old coming home after seeing it and saying “I like Shakespeare.” The fact that what he or she saw isn’t the play that Shakespeare wrote is possibly less important than the fact that that kid will carry that notion forward in life, and be more inclined to want to see and read more of Shakespeare in the future. I don’t remember Classics Illustrated comics (the ones my friends traded me for my DC comics while our parents were looking) having that same effect on me.
The 2004 Spring Tour production of Romeo and Juliet be performed March 4 at 9:30 a.m., March 5 at 10 a.m., and on April 2 & 5 9:30 a.m. and noon, at the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company on Kemble Street in Lenox. Other performances in the area are scheduled for 10 a.m. on March 23 at Symphony Hall in Springfield, MA, and at 10 a.m. on April 23 at The Egg in Albany, NY. The show runs 90 minutes. Call the Education Department at 413-637-1199, ext. 123 for tickets and information. Tickets are $8 general admission. Some performances are close to capacity, please reserve early.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004