American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by Gadi Roll. First performance 4 February 2006
The world of Romeo and Juliet as conceived by Gadi Roll, an Israeli director with the sharpest of eyes for human iniquity, is the one that the disillusioned Romeo characterizes, in his commerce with the apothecary in Act IV, as “loathsome.” He has just been informed by the trusty but hapless Balthasar that Juliet lies dead in the Capulet tomb, and now that human error and cosmic mischance have combined with exile from Verona and the loss of the love of his life (as he thinks), he aims to return there and “lie” with his love in death that night. Roll has taken the twin themes of loathsomeness and inevitability and back-projected them to the very onset of the play, with stunning results that triumph over an inexperienced actor’s Romeo and the usual sixteen variant shortfalls in actors’ attempts to speak Shakespearean verse and that finally leave us, almost numb, wondering if this, finally, is what the world of the early twenty-first century has come to. It is a violent, mendacious, testosterone-filled world, joyless, humorless, bereft of innocents long ago, a place where babies ingest aggressiveness in their mothers’ milk, are quicker than thought to sense the slightest wrong, and can see no further than their own fragile reputations. Many readers of Shakespeare’s text have observed how many comic elements appear to be embodied in the first two acts of the play, and they point in particular to the scene in which the Nurse, having come to the market-place in search of Romeo, is set upon verbally by Mercutio and made the comic butt of a series of ribald, crowd-pleasing jokes; and the tone changes for tragedy only when Mercutio is killed by Tybalt under Romeo’s peace-seeking hand. In Roll’s world, that shift has already occurred when the Prologue — played in this production by an old, limping, stuttering Prince — totters on and tells us of the inevitable tragedy we are about to witness.
He enters onto an extremely long, featureless rectangle of black, volcanic sand the entire width of the stage, and relatively shallow in comparison with its remarkable length. The audience area has been divided in two, so that occupants of the usual rising seats can now look across and see, almost as if in a mirror, a parallel set of rows of seats, about twelve rows high. The walking on this sandy expanse must be somewhat difficult, but it seems to have fostered a determined athleticism among the actors, old and young.
In fact, the energies expended in this production are phenomenal. No one stands still for more than a few seconds; actors are in perpetual motion, and typically they take an indirect or even contrary direction, in moving closer or further away from their interlocutors. There is a separate credit for “Movement” (to Doug Elkins) in the program, along with the more expectable credit for fight choreography (Rod Kinter). Frenetic it certainly is, but, still, the opposite of aimless: this is an extraordinarily tightly controlled production, every aspect of which has evidently been clearly and coherently planned and carried out by Roll and his fellow theatre artists.
Ricardo Hernandez’s set features, in addition to the alluvial plain of the main acting area, pulled into a strict geometrical regularity, a great catwalk high above the stage-right floor, with ladders down to it, as necessitated by the stage action. In the first balcony scene, the catwalk is Juliet’s balcony and the stage floor below it is the Capulet garden. In the tomb scene in Act V, the catwalk is the approach to the tomb, where Romeo arrives on his desperate errand, is confronted by Paris, kills him and somehow gets him down the ladder to the tomb, the main stage area, below. It is all black, and unremittingly desolate.
Kasis Maimone’s costumes are remarkable for at once conforming to a concept of modern-to-contemporary black bleakness and yet commanding a high, or middle-high-couture style with much noticeable variation in high-profile, individualized touches. There are some notable exceptions to the all-in-black approach exemplified in Romeo, Old Capulet, Old Montague, the Prince, and so on. In her early scenes Juliet is dressed in an excessive rich-kid style that might be designated as Contemporary Teenage Whore — underwear showing above and below; half-slips that serve for skirts and cling provocatively to the derrière; knee-high boots — worn through the whole performance as a means of traversing the challenging sands — which Juliet does with manly, determined strides, even when wearing her wedding dress, a seemingly uncharacteristically fulsome affair of light blue tulle, which ironically becomes her burial dress (and shows stage blood quite nicely). All the participants — and there is a real stage-full in two long lines — of the dance at Capulet’s masked ball where bright scarlet blindfolds (see-through, of course) are used for masks. Paris, dressed in a style that might be called Industrialist’s First-Born Son, wears entirely beige, the top layer being a great-coat that almost trails on the ground and has leather-like cross bands on its back; and his wedding suit looks like a $3,000 Armani job, custom-tailored to his macho, statuesque good looks and coiffed sandy hair. It’s not hard to see why this character, played with aplomb by Tony Roach, is the guy Capulet has been aiming at day and night, as he explains to his ungrateful last surviving daughter, and also the guy a horny Lady Capulet would just love to have visit the family on weekends. So there is ultimately a fair amount of noticeable relief from the very dark, off-black suits, some double-breasted, that are the rule (even Friar Lawrence forsakes his black monastic robe for such a snazzy two-piece double-breaster in the later scenes).
And the lighting is every bit as important too. It is fair to say that scene changes are accomplished entirely, or almost entirely, by lighting and lights, flown in from the grid or carried on and planted in the sand. The Capulet ball is graced by some dozen chandeliers that descend out of the blackness, coming alight as they descend. “Outdoor” scenes are lighted by plain round, shallow shades — and it should be explained here that there is not a glimpse of sunshine or even cloudy daylight in this production; it is always dark night in Roll’s Verona. Romeo’s comment on Juliet’s beauty — “Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright” — has a special and somewhat ironic and foreboding significance here. The final scene of the play, in the tomb, seems to be lighted entirely by lanterns — there must have been fifty or sixty of them — carried on in pairs by stagehands and extras, I suppose, all in black (of course), and set in the sand at the downstage and upstage limits of the geometric box. They were electrics, evidently, battery-powered, graceful and fairly tall (perhaps 12-15 inches), and the entrance of their bearers in the unremitting gloom of the tomb made for a powerful, beautiful, and striking effect.
The more I write about this production the more I realize how much I liked it, though I started off not liking it much at all. It was so bleak, so dark. I had just finished reading a series of quotations under the general title “Love Me or Kill Me,” excerpts that, the program explained, were read by cast and artistic team during rehearsals. One of them, a piece about the murders at Columbine High School, said, in part, “Our society is a violent culture in and of itself, and our music is a reflection of that. Music is a symptom, not a cause.” I wonder if the director takes a “symptomatic” approach to the plays he directs. This play in his hands certainly seems to reify on the stage the terrible, bleak hopelessness so many see in the world, especially in the troubled places of Iraq and Palestine. It connects all too clearly with us and the way we live.
The Romeo, Mickey Sobis, was faced with a near-Herculean task. As a recent piece in the Sunday Boston Globe explained, the original Romeo (his name is not in my head) suddenly found he had a professional conflict, in the form of a Hollywood opportunity, and left. The ART powers that be looked about them and decided that Solis, already cast as Benvolio, would be given his big chance — with three weeks to go before performance. Solis had recently played the youngest son in the ART production of Desire Under the Elms (2005), he being a 2005 graduate of the ART Institute. Solis rose to the challenge. More suited to Benvolio than to the all-unready lover of Rosaline who, like Hamlet, turns a sudden corner and confronts his destiny, Solis came up with a workable idea of who this Romeo was — a decent, unexceptional, middling sort of fellow, no great catch for a woman, but a friendly sort who gets in, suddenly, over his head but has the character and can summon the steadfastness to carry on in despite of fortune and men’s eyes, having unaccountably lucked into discovering the real love of his life. A coherent, malleable character, in short, though somewhat surprised and slightly embarrassed by his own dramatist-given articulateness; speech apparently doesn’t come easy to the Montagues. And so we didn’t end up hearing a lot of beautiful poetry. In fact, Roll made it a little easier for Solis by cutting a good bit of it, in such places as Romeo’s encounter with Juliet (it costs him something to call her “Dear Saint”; he’s not much used to metaphorical speech). But he is so well directed, as is every other character, that we gloss over such things in this utilitarian, post-Gielgud age. We are in fact as far beyond Zeffirelli, in this taut, uncompromisingly grim rendering of one of the best stories ever mounted on the stage, as Zeffirelli himself was beyond the world of Shakespeare.
Do we like it? Or at least can we live with it? It remains to be seen. But Gadi Roll is certainly someone to watch.