Presented by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. February 28-April 11, 2004. Directed by Ethan McSweeney. Set and costumes by Mark Wendland. Lighting by Jane Cox. Music and sound by Michael Roth. Dramaturgy by Michael Lupu. Movement by Marcela Lorca. Fights by Rick Sordelet. With Patch Darragh (Romeo), Christine Marie Brown (Juliet), Karl Kenzler (Mercutio), Stephen Yoakam (Prince, Chorus), Isabell Monk O'Connor (Nurse), Tybalt (Alex Podulke), Richard Iglewski (Friar Laurence), Stephen Pelinski (Capulet), Michelle O'Neill (Lady Capulet), Michael Chernus (Benvolio), Richard Ooms (Montague), Barbara Kingsley (Lady Montague), Lee Mark Nelson (County Paris), Casey Greig (Balthasar), Michael Booth (Peter), and others.
Ethan McSweeney's production of Romeo and Juliet on the main stage of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis was a study in the fragile balances that make life--and theater--possible. Like the novices with whom McSweeney supplied Friar Laurence in the second act, we learned that 'Two such opposed kings encamp them still / In man as well as herbs--grace and rude will; / And where the worser is predominant, / Full soon the canker death eats up that plant. 'The precarious tensions between time and space, words and really, light and dark, life and death provided the context in which the famous lovers' tragedy was played.
McSweeney located the conventions of tragedy, even the sense of tragic fate, in the very elements of theater: these lovers were 'star-crossed' in part because their positions in theatrical time and space were pre-determined. In this production the Chorus, who also played the prince of Verona, the apothecary, and the lethally dilatory Friar John, brandished a stopwatch at each appearance; the rapid pacing attempted to conform to the promised 'two hours' traffic of our stage.' Little time was spent on the famous scenes between the lovers. Their meeting at the Capulets' feast was not fingered over, and the morning lark really did rush these lovers from their bed to their deaths.
Similarly, the set made us highly conscious of being in a theater: the edge of the Guthrie's thrust stage was ringed intermittently by blocks of theater seats pushed right up to and under the stage, like chairs at a dining table. Right under the proscenium arch, industrial steel and aluminum catwalks led back to a plastic sheath--the kind used to cover a building project in winter. We were made aware of the theatrical setting as a construction, especially because the backstage was exposed around the plastic sheath, with rows of theater seats visible in which the principals sometimes sat awaiting their cues. The catwalks led down by stairs to a bare stage of wood planking raised about a foot over the gravel-covered thrust, which extended a few feet farther. Mid-stage left, a scaffold tower, accessible by catwalk from the rear and surmounted by a mock-Gothic window or porch, recalled the Gothic tower over the Capulet monument in Zeffirelli's film; below it lay an open trap: in the second half of the play, the 'porch' floor--with Juliet's bed bearing the lovers--was lowered into the trap, which eventually became the grave.
Time and setting dominated this Romeo and Juliet so thoroughly because the players in this swiftly moving production were very much an ensemble and because McSweeney eschewed the kind of heightened focus on the young lovers that has typically romanticized them. With the exception of Mercutio, in black leather sport coat and pants, none of the characters was allowed to stand out: parents and prince appeared in beige 50s-style apparel; Romeo was dressed in a lightweight tan summer suit, with the addition of boots, which all the young men wore. Tybalt appeared in military green the minor Montague and Capulet adolescents in modified contemporary street clothes--baggy shorts and vests--again in muted earth tones; Juliet wore a very simple pale blue frock through most of the play. There was little to no dwelling on the play's famous moments of high emotion. The lovers were pressed into each other's arms and hurried away by incoming actors or upstaged by scenes played behind them as the tower bedroom was lowered to the floor, where it eventually became the bier on which the lovers died under a spotlight surrounded by darkness. Time and space, stage light and shadows, conspired against them.
The theatrical elements themselves thus colluded to move the lovers from meeting to marriage to grave. The production opened with spotlights downstage aimed at the Gothic tower, the focal point of key actions--the lovers' first encounter, the balcony scene, Tybalt's death, the wedding night, and the final deaths. This tower became the locus of fate. Though the action initially employed the entire playing area (rear stage, scaffolds, tower, and thrust), by the second half of the play it was limited almost entirely to the thrust, which became a cemetery with funerary statues rising out of unexpected traps and lit from below. We had moved to a landscape of death that itself bred corpses: Paris's death was not excised from the scene as it has been from both modern film versions. Even the reconciliation between Capulets and Montagues occurred in the cramped quarters of this graveyard-crypt.
McSweeney's brooding production was perhaps the most daring of recent Shakespearean ventures at the Guthrie. Like the recent Othello, staged at the Guthrie Lab by artistic director Joe Dowling and now on a national NEA-sponsored tour, this Romeo and Juliet was certainly accessible. But McSweeney has returned to the Guthrie some of the daring that Dowling's crowd-pleasing productions have too often lacked; that he has done so with a play that has inevitably drawn crowds might suggest that we could at last be seeing a successful marriage of box-office savvy and theatrical experimentation at Dowling's heretofore all-too-tame Guthrie. Unlike Dowling's Othello, McSweeney's Romeo and Juliet called attention to itself as an act of theater; it demanded that we consider how tragedy is constructed--onstage and off.
DOUGLAS E. GREEN, Augsburg College, Minneapolis