“Tell me not, for I have heard it all” sayeth Romeo, and of course we have, too. Finding an angle from which Romeo and Juliet has not already been a hundred thousand times exposed must be a more onerous task than it is with any other Shakespeare. Even people who’ve never seen or read it feel like they have. Its star-crossed lovers have inspired a whole subgenre of pop songs. This is not a boast that King Lear or Timon of Athens can make.
Aaron Posner, whose track record with the Folger Theatre is exceptional, would seem to be just the fellow to give this old rose a new, er, name. But as the Bard’s spiritual kinsmen Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond once observed, “Nobody’s perfect.” Posner’s new, inexplicably calm Romeo and Juliet is never less than competent and only rarely, briefly more. If the absence of any palpable sexual chemistry between its central pair isn’t quite fatal, it does lend the play’s most familiar scenes what a cryonics expert or a 16th-century glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon might call a “borrow’d likeness of shrunk death.” Ay, me.
Remember how cool it was when Posner set The Taming of the Shrew in the 19th century American West on this same stage last year? If there’s a similar stylistic conceit governing this production, it’s an unspoken one: What if Romeo and Juliet were 30 instead of 13? That’s the only explanation I can think of for why this most hormonal and fevered of tragedies feels so grown-up and deliberate, almost doddering—a flaw the brilliant Eric Hissom foreshadows with the “ish” hand gesture he gives the “two hours’ traffic of our stage” line in the prologue. This lagging sense of laggy laggishness pervades despite what feel like substantial and occasionally confusing text cuts, particularly after Romeo and Juliet finally off themselves. (I’m not even sure if Lord Capulet finds out his daughter married Romeo in this version.) Jennifer Schriever’s lighting design, washing the stage in blues and greens, makes fair Verona feel like a chilly place full of reasonable people, like Switzerland. Why do little slights between Montagues and Capulets keep boiling over into bloody street fights again?
Those melees, both verbal and martial, are still the liveliest scenes, though, because they give us Rex Daugherty and Brad Koed as Tybalt and Mercutio. At last, some impatience! Either of these guys would likely have made a more insistent Romeo than Michael Goldsmith, who seems to spend the whole evening waiting for the starting gun to go off. Fight director Casey Dean Kaleba makes the two brawlers mix it up with a short blade in each hand, just for novelty. Take away their flashing, ringing swords, though, and Daugherty and Koed still give the most electric performances by far. (Though it’s nice to see Capital Fringe graduate Aaron Bliden here too, as Benvolio.)
Soon they’re literally pushed to the margins: When a character dies, Posner moves him to the stage’s upper platform to lean on the railing and watch with the rest of us. It’s as if they were ejected from the game for roughhousing, something this show could use a whole lot more of.
Four and a half years have passed since this production’s Juliet, the enormously talented Erin Weaver, played a Juliet-aged character for Posner (her husband) in Arcadia at the Folger. That was maybe the best thing I’ve seen in a D.C. playhouse. When she addresses her “what’s in a name” speech to a well-loved plush toy, seeming to mourn for just a moment its anatomical incorrectness, she finds a vein of wonder.
Overwhelmingly, though, Weaver’s Juliet comes off as too mature and sensible not at least to consider talking to Paris, the kindhearted, well-born suitor preferred by her father. Or indeed, to drink some death-emulating potion just because that stoner Friar Laurence says it’s safe and effective. She wears modern clothes, a military jacket and a stocking cap, while everyone else is in Elizabethan-era costume. It feels like a shaky stab at differentiation, like when a freshman wears a fedora to school. That, at least, captures some of the risk and impetuousness of youth. Kids those days...
In the Forest She Grew Fangs
By Stephen Spotswood
Directed by Ryan S. Taylor
Washington Rogues at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint to Nov. 3
I haven’t seen Kimberly Pierce’s new remake of Carrie, but I bet D.C. playwright Stephen Spotswood’s atmospheric and unrelenting In the Forest She Grew Fangs is a better Carrie than the new Carrie is. A supernatural fable about a pubescent girl in a nowhere town lashing out against her tormentors, this feels like the kind of primal scenario that might suggest itself to a lot of imaginative people. Every generation must endure high school and the emotional privations it visits upon the unlucky, so the story warrants frequent return visits. Using the close confines of the black-box Mead Theatre Lab to his advantage, director Ryan S. Taylor has found a way to make a familiar tale urgent and disorienting.
Spotswood cleverly divides the labor among four narrators: Lucy, the shy, physically slight bullies’ plaything; Ruth, her sad-eyed grandmother and guardian; Jenny, a worldly girl exiled from California for her senior year; and Hunter, a sensitive jock whose memories of his own years of victimhood remain fresh. (This preponderance of substantive roles for women is a hallmark of Spotswood’s work.)
Multiple narrators means a lot of monologuing, but the actors are up to it. As Lucy, Megan Graves is especially astute, showing us a sadder vocal affect and body language when she’s speaking to us than when she’s interacting with the sophisticated Jenny, whose approval she craves. Taylor directed Graves in a terrific production of Ella Hickson’s all-monologue play Eight in 2010, an experience that seems to have served them both well here. But the other three are compelling, too, particularly Jane Petkofsky’s Ruth, whose recollection of her grim coming-of-age during the 1960s makes the piece feel like detail of a much larger canvas.
Costume designer Jesse Shipley dresses the three-woman chorus as high-school archetypes by way of John Hughes—the cheerleader, the preppy girl, the punk—uniforms she wisely doesn’t bother to change when they’re playing male bullies. One of these weird sisters, Natalie Curcher—she’s the cheerleader—has a way of letting her head lull to one side while keeping her eyes fixed straight ahead that makes her seem more like a possessed doll than a self-governing human. It’s perfect for the part.
Set and lighting desinger Chris Holland’s stage is a prison of black lockers, a functional evocation of the high school setting through which, in a menacing touch, the bullies make their entrances and exits. The notion of the locker you’re issued coming equipped with its own sadist makes for a haunting metaphor. Cruelty is part of the system.