I'll get around to reviewing the Hattiloo Theatre's minimally staged Romeo & Juliet shortly. But first, a plea for sanity.
Dear Memphis-area performing arts organizations, can we all please agree that Shelby County has had quite enough of Romeo & Juliet in recent years and make a pact to not schedule another main-stage production of the popular tragedy for a significant period of time to be determined at a later date?
Giving the people what they want is one thing. Beating them over the head with it is something else entirely. Memphians have seen variations on R&J from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Ballet Memphis too. Over the past half-dozen seasons, we've been treated to a hilarious, heartbreaking production by the Tennessee Shakespeare Company and a dark, brooding anti-war production at Germantown Community Theatre (complete with thoughtfully prepared slide shows and video!). There was a real head-scratcher of a production at Playhouse on the Square, where a perfectly ambulatory actress was asked to play Juliet in a wheelchair because ... well, your guess is as good as mine. And let's not forget Theatre Memphis' lush, pull-out-the-stops production of West Side Story, which is close enough to the real thing for complaining purposes.
Sure, Shakespeare's awesome. And R&J is on a lot of school reading lists. But if you're seriously going to commit to Shakespeare, dig a little deeper into the canon. Otherwise, it just seems cynical. Or consider an occasional go at Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, Racine, Molière, or any number of other classic playwrights whose words, once imagined as timeless, were forced into early retirement by the Bard.
This is a matter of utmost urgency, and I thank you in advance for your kind consideration.
To be frank, I don't have much to say about the Hattiloo Theatre's take on the ubiquitous teen tragedy. There are some fine, studied performances, and Somer Greene, the Hattiloo's Juliet, is one of the most promising newcomers I've seen in a long time. But even with its multiracial cast, this R&J is oppressively monochromatic.
The set is rendered in a single shade of gray and is evocative of nothing other than a gray theater set, possibly unfinished. The platforms and step units don't remind us of fair Verona, or of Memphis, or of anywhere else really. That's not necessarily a bad thing. In the theater, nowhere can be anywhere, but that requires a level of self-awareness that's mostly missing from this sincere and well-meaning production. Even an empty space ought to be an interesting space.
Earlier this year, director Pamela Poletti — a proven creative force who seems to have fumbled this go-round — had expressed an intention to set her R&J in Memphis, 1968. She thought it might be interesting to contrast one family celebrating Cotton Carnival with another family that was preparing for the sanitation workers' strike. That kind of direct metaphor is always risky and can be a real imposition on the original text. But at least the animosity between the feuding houses of Montague and Capulet would have been well defined. Somewhere along the way that original idea was abandoned in favor of something grayer and less clearly defined, and as a result the conflict often seems arbitrary. An early altercation over the musical selection on an iPod made me wonder if some kind of East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry were being set up. No such luck.
R&J doesn't require that kind of gimmickry, but it does require that kind of clarity.
Poletti's cast is top-notch. Steven Brown, an exceptional Malvolio in Twelfth Night at Rhodes, is a swaggering and solid Mercutio. Jo Lynne Palmer and Andy Saunders are both perfect fits for the pivotal roles of Juliet's nurse and Friar Lawrence. But if there is one reason to drop whatever else you might be doing and sit through yet another Romeo & Juliet, it's to see Greene. The teen actor humanizes Shakespeare's words, speaking them as naturally as she breathes, and her scenes with Romeo (earnestly played by James Cook) are uncommonly tender.
Through April 8th