When I first learned The New Jewish Theatre was planning a production of Romeo & Juliet set in 1947 Palestine (under the British Mandate), it sounded like a fine idea. The family's conflict, vague in origin in the original play, is a given: The Montagues are Jews and the Capulets are Arabs. So how did it go so far off the rails? Let me count the ways.
First though, I want to note that I have seen every single member of this large cast do fine work in other productions. The fact that this one doesn't work is not their fault. Some are miscast, perhaps not quite ready to "speak Shakespeare" yet; others do very well with the material they're given. Robin Weatherall adapted and directed, and I suppose the blame must be laid at his door. His direction is mostly solid, though there are some choices I don't understand such as making Capulet (B. Weller) go from behaving as a distinguished high ranking member of the Arab League to a screaming nut job who hits his daughter and his wife and pulls the Nurse's hair. The three women (Meg Rodd Gunther, Amy Loui and Aarya Sara Locker) add their own histrionics to the scene, making the play a swirl of sound and fury which, at times, signifies very little.
Locker as the Nurse wears a tailored suit much of the time perhaps to pass through the streets unmolested? but then she adds the hijab. She seems overly attached to the Capulets, at least when it comes to grieving. She keens and moans over the dead children to the point where even Niobe would hand her a tissue and tell her to suck it up. Other times, she wears traditional Arab garments. Being upset is about all Loui gets to do. And these fine actors deserve better than this. Rodd Gunther's Juliet is cute as a button, but her diction is execrable. She sounds like an Elizabethan Valley Girl. And would an Arab girl be running around, even in her own room, in a teddy through much of the proceedings?
David Wassilak is a somewhat diffident Montague, at least in comparison to the volcanic Capulets. He doesn't seem fully invested. The character of Lady Montague has been cut. The rest of "The House of Montague" is comprised of son Romeo (Rusty Gunther), Benvolio (Romeo's friend played by Mark Kelley) and Mercutio (Brooke Edwards), another of Romeo's friends. All belong to the activist organizations Hagganah or Irgun. Hagganah was a group dedicated to protecting the Jewish settlement from violence from the Arabs. Irgun was a group of Zionist dissidents who were more prone to using violence to achieve the same goal because the ends justify the means. This is all very interesting, but we hear nothing about it. Romeo is Hagganah and Benvolio and Mercutio are Irgun, but they never speak of politics. We only see them interacting as buddies.
And Mercutio is not a man played by a woman (which would have been a neat reversal of Elizabethan casting practices) but is a gritty female Holocaust survivor with a nasty temper who is willing to fight any man. Her Achilles Heel is, we're told, her unrequited love for Romeo, but that seems highly unlikely. Romeo is a lover, not a fighter, and they'd have nothing in common. She makes crude jokes with him and drinks with him, but he considers her "one of the guys" and the talented Edwards comes off as a two-dimensional harridan stuck in an extraneous sub-plot. All Mercutio's witty double entendres sound vulgar coming from her. And when it comes time for Romeo to avenge her death, that's a muddle too. First, he pulls an "Indiana Jones," by just shooting Tybalt after being defeated by Tybalt in a fist fight, and then there is cause to wonder why he'd go that far to defend a friend. The whole point of Romeo & Juliet is warring FAMILIES, not going around shooting your secret wife's cousin for killing your friend in a fair fight which said friend started.
But the crux of the failure of this adaptation is simple: The British officers are accompanied by "Laurence" (Kevin Beyer), an Army Chaplain. He justifies his possession of the sleeping draught for Juliet by having explained much earlier in the play that he has knowledge of herbs. Romeo mentions that he and Laurence are friends when he is seeking a way for him and Juliet to get married and goes to the Chaplain, vaguely named "holy man" by the families. But Laurence still says "Holy St. Francis" when he is shocked, and he is clearly a Christian. Neither a Montague nor a Capulet would consider a marriage by him to be valid. But Capulet even planned to have Laurence officiate at Juliet's aborted marriage to Paris, so go figure.
Tyler Vickers as the Governor doesn't have much to do, but his commanding baritone bespeaks authority. Aaron Orion Baker is generally effective in a rather thankless part, especially considering that he and Juliet are, again, from two worlds. Why on earth would her father advocate her marrying a Christian? I liked Michael Perkins as Peter, a sort of jack-of-all trades character friend and support to the Nurse, illiterate errand boy for Capulet and representative of all the servants in the original play. Charlie Barron is a fine Tybalt. I'd like to see him do the part in another production. His diction is excellent, as is Beyer's, Locker's, Kelley's, Baker's, and even Weller's, despite the volume.
Another big change occurs at the end. Juliet is "dead," Romeo tosses off the poison, but she wakes up before he dies. So, his line, "Thus, with a kiss, I die" is delivered after a passionate kiss with the horrified Juliet, who then shoots herself. Romeo has already dispatched Paris, but he shoots him inside the tomb rather than stabbing him outside and dragging him in. Having Romeo and Juliet behold each other in life one more time isn't a bad choice; it's just different from what we're accustomed to. Then the Governor is the one to restore order, Montague and Capulet shake hands, and the wish is expressed that this is a step on the path to peace. We know that didn't work out, but the gesture doesn't come across as dramatic irony so much as giving a sense that the audience's intelligence is being underestimated.
The set is comprised of levels representing the houses of Montague and Capulet. Dunsai Dai's clever design allows a bed to be pulled out from under one of them for the wedding night and crypt scenes. A cloud appropriately hangs above the stage. Glenn Dunn's lights give a real sense of desert heat, but occasionally the cues were off. Curtains at the back of the stage part periodically to reveal a large video screen that shows a mixture of genuine and fictional headlines about the political situation and the goings on in the play. When we come in the Union Jack is prominently displayed. At the end of the play, the final video image we see is the flag of the State of Israel. Nice touch. Michael Perkins did an excellent job as video editor. Michele Siler's costumes are lovely on the women, and flattering to the natty British officers and elegant Montagues. Mercutio and Benvolio are dressed casually, but Gunther, clad in t-shirt, slacks and fedora, looks like a refugee from the Rat Pack, and he looks a bit silly. And, except for the evening wear the friends don to crash the Montague party, Gunther is stuck in that outfit throughout the play.
Everything I've said here notwithstanding, I still admire a company willing to take chances, and this was a big one. At the performance I attended, about half the audience left at intermission. If they were bored, that's bad, but from what I could hear, a lot of them were offended. And that's not bad. If we don't have our own perceptions and viewpoints challenged from time to time, then we simply stop thinking and become complacent. This Romeo & Juliet tries to get us to interrogate our prejudices and rethink stereotypes. Weatherall also succeeds in teaching a history lesson. It took courage on The New Jewish Theatre's part to do this show in an even-handed manner. I can and do salute that impulse.
Romeo & Juliet is being produced as part of The History Museum's Performing Arts Series. For information call 314-442-3283 or visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.