Every so often in the current St. Louis Shakespeare rendition of Romeo and Juliet, the beleaguered young protagonists speak directly to the audience. Normally this kind of in-your-face staging seems too easy, obvious and wrong. But here it provides an intriguing reminder that no one appreciates the plight of these star-crossed lovers -- except the audience. Their parents don't understand them; their confidants betray them. To whom else can Romeo and Juliet turn, other than us?
That decision to reach out to the audience is but one example of the fresh thinking that undergirds this production. The result is a straightforward, clear telling that cuts past the kinds of clichés that through the years have attached themselves like carbuncles to this immortal tale of woe.
One such cliché is the generally accepted notion that, because the story occurs in Italy, productions must be set in the fifteen-century Renaissance, with actors running around in tights and swatting at imaginary flies. By contrast, this Romeo has been moved to the more formal, yet highly romantic, eighteenth-century Empire era. The play's rhymed couplets seem comfortably at home in a world best remembered for poets like Keats and Shelley. Also, the constricting clothes of the Empire -- which might at first seem to play against the story's passion -- are instead a constant visual reminder of a restrictive world in which daughters have little choice other than to obey their dictatorial fathers.
Director Milt Zoth has made other clever choices that clarify the text. In the script, for instance, Romeo and Juliet are married offstage; here, the viewer attends the wedding and then endures the sadness of seeing the bride and groom promptly separated.
But the fundamental reason this production stands apart from the Shakespearean norm is because it is peopled by characters rather than mouthpieces.
Too often, actors in Shakespeare are so focused on the text that they neglect to breathe life into their roles. Yet it's the little touches that, when strung together, create an identifiable human being.
As Romeo, Joshua DesRoches arrives onstage already so in love with love that he literally hugs the ground. In his second scene, as he reads the guest list for the party he is about to crash, DesRoches takes the time to ascribe a defining attribute to nearly every name on the list. As read here, this list -- while hardly germane to the plot -- is very telling: It informs the viewer that this actor is going to strive to fill out every moment, however insignificant.
More often than not he does. I would have preferred to see him slay Tybalt with the same lightning impetuosity that he displays later when he murders the County Paris. (Everything about Romeo needs to be sudden, from the speed with which he falls in love with Juliet to the hastiness with which he dooms their love.) And when he hears the news of Juliet's death, I might have hoped for a quieter, more resolute reading of the fateful line, "Is it e'en so? Then I defy you, stars!" But for the most part, DesRoches's Romeo is engagingly consistent.
Juliet offers an even greater challenge. During the course of the play's stunningly brief five-day span, she must evolve from a thirteen-year-old child who has hardly thought of marriage ("It is an honor that I dream not of") to someone so emotionally destroyed that she's willing to feign death in order to attain happiness. In Act 1, Julie Layton's Juliet is childlike in external, indicating ways that are not rooted in character. Yet in Act 2, beginning with the bedroom scene where she and Romeo have just slept together and her hair falls free to her shoulders, it's as if those unpent tresses are able to release unexpected emotional colors. Suddenly, this Juliet becomes a believable child/woman of conviction and purpose.
Matt Kahler brings a statuesque confidence to the flamboyant Mercutio -- and, for a welcome change, an intelligent (and -- here's that word again -- character-driven) reading of the Queen Mab speech. Donna Weinsting is properly dense and salacious as the Nurse who so monstrously betrays Juliet's trust. As for Kevin Beyer's Friar Laurence, his quiet, unassuming manner seems fitting, but it was hard to get past that secular costume. Even if it's right, it's wrong.
One other thing is terribly wrong. Once Romeo and Juliet are dead, a production must rush to its conclusion. Of course there are story points to resolve -- reconciliation between the warring families, the disgrace of Friar Laurence -- but they should be resolved with the same haste that is the play's motif. This final scene, with its needless, seemingly endless, recap of all that's gone before, is excruciatingly slow.
Nevertheless, until its final minutes there is much of interest here. Those who are more comfortable with the tried-and-true should stick with the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli-directed film. But anyone who's up for a change in his Shakespeare diet should find much to savor in this unconventional Romeo and Juliet.