WHEN ROMEO MET JULIET
Last night Shakespeare’s Globe Theater brought it’s production of Romeo and Juliet to the Dock Street Theater to kick off the Spoleto Festival. We go because Shakespeare is meant to be experienced as performance. Yes, we can lift the famous quotes to insert into love notes or term papers or instagram memes, but we need to hear those words from the mouths of actors to truly appreciate the master of our language as it is meant to be heard. Whether it is from a fresh-faced Leo DeCaprio to Claire Dane in Baz Lurhman’s color-splashed over soundtrack steroids or a local production of high schoolers, the words are meant to be performed. This production from the very birthplace of modern theater delivers a performance like none other.
To begin, we should acknowledge the near holy experience of walking down Church Street in America’s most historic city and entering the hallowed halls of the Dock Street Theater, America’s first. Talk about a warm up act like no other! We are already so satiated it would take an entire first act of even the worst dribble to stifle the mood. But to enter a theater when the performers are already on the stage, warming their instruments, engaging with each other in light banter, making eye contact with the audience and then walking up the aisles to chit and chat only heightens the experience. WARNING: if you are one who loathes audience interaction don’t sit in the front row or on the aisle. I was happy in my perch in the balcony to witness but not participate.
The cast is a lean eight and they play their own instruments, so when this merry band of tattooed gang members – each cast member’s skin is decorated with large gang tattoos to signify their allegiance to Capulet or Montague -- breaks into the opening song it is a surprise to learn that we have already met our Romeo. As well as Mercutio, Tybalt, Nurse and Lady Capulet. These eight play all the roles, switching costumes throughout the play – it can be confusing if one is not familiar with the action, but this is not a negative. The only actors who play one character are our star-crossed lovers Romeo, played by a perfectly cast Samuel Valentine and Juliet, played by a delightfully charming Cassie Layton. More on those two later.
The set is simple. A black stage with a sparse wooden deck -- with the famous balcony above -- evokes a roped dock by the river. Accessible only by ladder and pegs on a pole the actors climb up and down in an athletic display that reminds one of Cirque de Soleil. Again, this is not a negative but rather entertaining. The costumes are equally simple Italian-ish of the 1950’s with Elizabethan robes thrown on for the ball scenes and swordfights. This simplicity of stage and set is a perfect backdrop for Shakespeare. We, as Americans, need to concentrate to catch the rhythm of the language. Presented simply, this production makes that possible, and enjoyable.
Since we sit and wait for Romeo to appear, let’s get right to it. Samuel Valentine answers to the name and it is not love at first sight. We are used to seeing our Romeos as teen idols. Directors cast this role to sell tickets. He must be movie star pretty and while Valentine (seriously? Valentine plays Romeo?) is handsome he is not Leo. Again, we as the audience are forced to dismiss our notions and listen to the words. And the words he delivers. Valentine exhibits a staggering range. From cocksure prince to flirtatious paramour to love sick puppy to righteous revenge, our Romeo is a fully realized being on the Dock Street stage. He is charming without smugness. He is sexy but not swarthy. He is completely in his element as the Prince of Montague: young, daring, hot-headed, beguiled and a hell of a swordsman. Go for the swordfights! It is amazing to watch the athletic display at its finest.
If our anxiety of an able Romeo is dispelled we can turn our attention to Juliet. Please, Lord, let Juliet be good. Please. Let her be good. The whole play hangs on the ability of this actress to make us believe she is capable of igniting Romeo’s passion so ardently that he is willing to die for her heart. I can say with great relief that our challenge has been met. I loved Cassie Layton as Juliet. When she first appeared on stage I thought she must have come to the wrong show. She looks like an East Village waif on her way to the set of Rent. Again, not negative, just new. When she removes her mask to see Romeo’s face for the first time at the Capulet ball there is a palpable spark. It is now that we breathe a sigh of relief and brace ourselves for the famous balcony scene. The Wherefore-Art-Thou scene is so worn out you feel sorry for the actor who must say those words. I will report that Miss Layton is a breath of fresh air into that dusty soliloquy. She utters them so naturally you get the sense of eavesdropping on a young cousin. In fact, if there is one word to sum up her wonderful performance it is natural, and to my surprise, funny at times. What a relief and what a delight. Layton and Valentine have perfect chemistry. I will even say I felt a pang of sorrow during the death scene. That is how well they inhabit their characters. They are right at home as the impossible teens acting irrationally on love’s first bite. I dare say I love them.
But I must tell you, the standout performance in this production comes from Mercutio. Yes, Romeo’s sidekick is a terrific role and a joy for any actor to play, but Steffan Donnelly fills the role with such panache you never want him to leave the stage (fortunately he returns after Mercutio's death in the role of the Prince). He is funny, witty, bawdy and ferocious. Donnelly plays him with a dynamic, effeminate flair prancing around and snuggling with the male characters very intimately. It is then a significant surprise when he turns fierce in defense of Romeo and engages Tybalt (played by a virile Matt Doherty who bears a striking resemblance to Ben Affleck) in battle. I admire a man who plays against type whether in real life or on stage and Donnelly flies high on wire.
So there you have it. Run, don’t walk to get your ticket to see this show. The production is a revelation. The cast, set, music, lighting and costumes are perfect accompaniments to the text. Lest we forget, Shakespeare is the real star of the show, and those ancient, remarkable words are meant to be heard in performance.
ROMEO AND JULIET
SPONSORED BY: First Citizens
VENUE: Dock Street Theatre
DURATION: Approximately 2 hours, 40 minutes
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare
ROMEO Samuel Valentine
JULIET Cassie Layton
PARIS/TYBALT Matt Doherty
MERCUTIO/PRINCE Steffan Donnelly
CAPULET Steven Elder
NURSE Sarah Higgins
FRIAR LAURENCE/BENVOLIO Tom Kanji
LADY CAPULET Hannah McPake