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LOU'S VIEWS: Race colors IRT's 'Romeo and Juliet'

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Lou Harry

Every time I see a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” I’m reminded that Shakespeare’s iconic—and still fresh—play is concerned less with romance and more with impulsivity. Just about all the characters seem to have a built-in switch that can be flipped without notice. Barely any motivation is required to turn attraction into eternal love or an insult into a brawl.

Post-WWII America is the setting for the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s take on the Shakespeare classic. (Photo/Julie Curry Photography)
This hair-trigger world is typified by Romeo, who turns his affections from the unseen Rosaline to Juliet as quickly as he later turns from peacekeeper to killer. Bad decision after bad decision could be averted if only fair Verona—or, in the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production, suburban post-WWII America—had an ordinance imposing a cooling-off period before doing anything.

This choice of period/place is just one of three major elements that define this production.

The second is race. Adding to the tinderbox qualities inherent in the show is the IRT’s decision to make Juliet and her fellow Capulets a black family in contrast to the white Romeo. It’s not a particularly bold or original idea—it might have been an edgy choice if we were in 1972—but it certainly highlights (and underlines … and draws arrows pointing to) the forces keeping the young lovers/lusters apart.

This choice also allows Juliet’s family to become the most interesting people on stage. David Alan Anderson expertly captures Juliet’s father, a man proud of the backyard deck and weekend afternoon beer of a lifestyle that he’s been able to achieve—and determined to keep his daughter from taking a step backward. Cynthia Kaye McWilliams has a thrilling inner life as Lady Capulet. And Karen Aldridge, whose elbows give a more expressive performance here than other actors’ full bodies elsewhere, is unforgettable as the Nurse, here presented as a trusted, live-in relative. As to their daughter, Claire Aubin Fort is an appealing, appropriately youthful Juliet even though sparks don’t really ignite with her pretty boy Romeo. For a lesson in stage passion, all involved should witness the first act of “The Housewives of Mannheim” over at the Phoenix Theatre.

The third important element that defines the IRT’s production is its scale. Presented in two acts, the show is smartly trimmed, but doesn’t hacksaw Shakespeare the way some whiplash-inducing local productions in the past have. And it avoids the confusion of actors playing two or three parts each that plague many budget-conscious Shakespeare productions. Here, 10 actors mercifully play only 10 roles.

There are, of course, sacrifices in such an arrangement. For instance, the adult Montagues have been cut out, undermining Shakespeare’s multi-generational family feud. The three guys representing the Montague “side” are left to seem less like part of a warring family and more like slackers hanging outside a Village Pantry.

The now nonexistent Prince’s efforts to keep the peace are transposed to minimal effect onto Friar Lawrence (a Ray Romano-ish parish priest, played by Robert Neal).

There are times when the language and the imposed social context and time period reverberate magically to a point where you may suspect the IRT of tinkering with and updating the dialogue. At other times, the anachronisms—some trivial, some important—get in the way. Romeo’s banishment, for example, makes no sense. Neither does the willingness of Friar Lawrence or the Nurse to aid in the efforts of the impetuous young lovers. The usually charming Mercutio is played as a burned-out military vet, which fits the period but distances him from Romeo. Without that bond, Mercutio’s death doesn’t have the emotional impact it could. (The fights, however, are well-choreographed.)

Still, in its crystal clarity and unambiguous staging, the IRT’s accessible “Romeo and Juliet” makes it easy for even the most resistant-to-Shakespeare audience members not just to understand the action, but also to hear the poetry. I suspect that many of the more than 12,000 attendees at already-sold-out student matinees will become Shakespeare fans.

And, yes, Shakespeare has a Facebook page.•

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This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.

 

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