Wrapping Up Romeo


But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!

[The actor is silent, twitching his fingers as if to draw something out, then upping the gesture until it is a furious, full-arm coaxing.]

Arise, fair sun! And, and and...

[The actor looks around himself frantically, finally spotting something in the distant horizon.]

KILL the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief that thou her maid art far more fair than she!

[The actor gives a take to the audience as if to say, "Wow, did you hear me come up with that?" The actor is never sure if this take is going to land as he intends it {that is, as a gleeful sharing of enthusiasm rather than giving the sense that he's impressed with himself} and so, sometimes, he skips it. Sometimes.]


I'll miss my clown Romeo. Though potentially not for long, as the Italians are very encouraging about getting some part (if not all) of the production to Italy to perform, either this summer or next. Still, the curtain has fallen on this particular outing, and it's unlikely that another will be quite the same. So. To review:

The key to my take on Romeo lay in a late note from our clown director, Mark McKenna. He compared Romeo to a puppy -- all loyalty and enthusiasm, no strategy or subtext. This worked great, though I'm sure another performer could have done it better. One of the greater challenges for me in this exploration was to let go of my calculation and crispness in favor of an instinctive openness. I've never done so well at this before, yet I'm certain I didn't take it as far as it could have successfully gone. (So I'll be thankful for another chance, or two.) Romeo had big, ungainly paws and an ear-flapping energy. Part of the beauty of this puppy imagery was that it gave permission to be angry as well as cuddly, which helped me figure out how a clown Romeo could slay a commedia dell'arte Tybalt. It's funny: I used to attribute an animal to every character I played, a technique I've gotten away from in my adult career. Of course playing such a young lover would end up being nested in that work!

Prior to that image, there was a lot of struggle on my part to succeed as a clown in the role and, as I said, my success was mitigated by me just being me. I remember in college my TV/film acting teacher told the class that I shouldn't be going after non-brainy roles, that my "look" or "type" was too focused for that. I thought, thank goodness I'll be doing theatre, where I can more easily transform, but the personality traits she was picking up on were perfectly valid. I'm a thinker. That's not to say I'm especially intelligent, just that I work from my head first whenever I can. Bad habit for an actor, generally speaking, which is part of what I like about trying to do this amazing craft. I like the work involved in getting instinctive, getting into my heart. That didn't save me from some fury-inducing frustration during this rehearsal process (natch'), but even that was reminiscent of my teenage years, and so wasn't entirely an obstacle.

I have come to a new appreciation of the axiom that "there is no subtext in Shakespeare." This is a saying so often said that it is starting to lose letters, holes appearing like new constellations in the firmament of phraseology. (And yes, I do miss the language already.) In the little roles I've previously filled, it was apparent to me that every character says what is on his or her mind, and nothing less, but it wasn't until trying to fill out a role like Romeo that I felt how essential that no-subtext rule is. You don't just say everything as you feel it, you express it, wholly, and the whole thing is in motion the whole time. There is no stop to your internal life, there is no censorship or, ultimately, room for grand interpretation. Take, for example, the following:


"This gentleman, the Prince's near ally, my very friend, hath got this mortal hurt in my behalf. My reputation stain'd with Tybalt's slander -- Tybalt, that an hour hath been my kinsman! Ah Juliet; thy beauty hath made me effeminate, and in my temper softened valor's steel."

This ended up being the text I most had to mess with, interpretation-wise. Somehow in the clown world and with our vasty cutting of the text, it needed to be an upbeat bit, in order to more dramatically drop in the moment when Benvolio came back with Mercutio's mask in hand to tell of his demise. It's right there: mortal hurt. Romeo's upset and knows that Mercutio's at death's door, yet I felt I had to play it lightly, as though Romeo were oblivious right up to the last second. It never felt right, and it never would, because there's only so much room for interpretation. The conditions are all right there in the text, and honesty lives in living them out in their time and measure.

Apart from a few other little alterations, I feel strongly that our show was very true to the story and the characters. There was some doubt of this to begin -- we didn't know if a clown & commedia world would work at all, much less whether it could be convincingly applied to R&J. (Note: Next time, Jeff, read through the play a couple of times before you get super excited about your concept....) We were lucky in discovering, in my opinion, that this concept was in fact well-suited to the material. Romeo and Juliet are just as innocent and moment-to-moment as clowns, and they are surrounded by a world of connivers, and scarred fighters, and hypocrites. And all these people are lovable, even the worst of them, which makes the tragedy truly, uh, tragic. You feel bad for everyone. It will be a while before I'll be able to see the play as anything other than how we conceived it. Indeed, watching film versions of it I'm compelled to laugh, especially during the back-to-back "banished" scenes. You can't expect me to believe that he wrote those without some sense of the comic irrationality of teenagers.

One criticism of the show lingers for me: That it was too manic, that the tragedy was ultimately undermined by all the broad comedy preceding it, and came off as too abrupt. This sticks with me because I feel quite the opposite. To me, life is like that. Tragedy is abrupt, and I meant every emotion prior to our characters' deaths, regardless of how comic the effect was, so I feel that there was plenty of room there to believe that something truly sad was happening. This critique is also interesting to me because, technically speaking, Romeo & Juliet is not exactly a tragedy. The deaths are quite accidental and unnecessary, rather than inevitable. There is no return to the status quo, true (the hallmark of classical comedy), but neither are the main characters of especially high status. Furthermore, it seems to me that Shakespeare knew this, and spent some effort to counteract it. Of all the lines we cut, a great many were (I believe coincidentally) of a foreboding nature. Hardly a scene goes by without Romeo and/or Juliet saying something about a bad dream or sudden image of death. Methinks the playwright doth protest too much, in other words.

What we made, ultimately, was a very broad, structured comedy that aspired to inspire tragic catharsis at the end. I know we reached this aspiration for some, and not for others. Such is theatre, such is life. I feel very fulfilled, now all is said and done. It was not as I imagined it, but that's collaboration, and the show was probably better for it. I learned much, and kept learning, which I take as a sign that we were doing something right in terms of story and character. The audiences enjoyed themselves, and we achieved some measure of delight, surprise, and grief. It was funny, and it was beautiful, and if I never get to play another leading Shakespeare role again, I can happily hang my hat on this.

That's not my plan, though. I've got a taste for it now.
 
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