Romeo & Juliet has been done and redone in approximately five gazillion different ways. Gounod made it into an opera; Tchaikovsky made it into a noise; Franco Zeffirelli did it as kiddie porn; Baz Luhrman did it with guns. Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers have been used to comment on apartheid, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, slavery, Amerindian tribalism, classism, the plight of the Wobblies, the IRA, the NRA, the SPCA, TWA, IRC, AIM, NAMBLA, and the PMRC. But it took The Naked Stage to give us what we've really been craving all along: Romeo and Juliet in Space!
No. That was a lie. The Naked Stage's inaugural production is not set in space. It is set, sensibly enough, in (fair) Verona, where Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Mercutio, the Nurse, Lady Capulet, and Friar John get to speak for themselves, more-or-less as Shakespeare intended. There's been a lot of noise in recent weeks mostly generated by The Naked Stage itself about how this production is some kind of radical departure from the traditional R&J. The portents are there. The piece is now called By Any Other Name, and it's been promoted with this slogan: "Forget everything you thought you knew about Romeo & Juliet." To this I say, "Hogwash!"
And thank God. I'm gonna go out on a limb here, and suggest that Shakespeare pretty much knew what he was doing when he threw together this particular script. Antonio Amadeo and John Manzelli understand this, and have kept interference to a minimum. Although Prince Escalus and Count Paris have been condensed into a single, imperious entity (Prince Paris, played by David Perez-Ribada like a Renaissance version of John Wayne in Red River), and a whole lot of the original's tertiary characters now find their voices in a new character named "Olivia" (the effortlessly comic Michaela Cronan), and even though many a character has been scooped out of the mix entirely (Lord Capulet, Lord and Lady Montague), this is still about as Shakespeare as Shakespeare gets. If anything, Manzelli and Amadeo's minor tweaks and stripped-down approach only serve to focus our collective attention on Shakespeare's language all the more. Thusly focused, we may find ourselves thinking, "Shit! That motherfucker could write!"
I'm not the kind of cat who sits around reading Shakespeare recreationally. Haven't cracked a volume of the stuff since school. It's a far finer thing to see it in person, with a good cast, madly in love with the words and tapped in to all that perfectly distilled humanity living behind them; to sit there and let the language break over you like a warm and frothy wave, its content inseparable from its form in a way that is impossible on paper.
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But it's a risky, risky business you need good actors, and not only good actors, but good Shakespearean actors, which are hard to come by on this side of the Atlantic. Happily, through some serendipitous alignment of the stars, The Naked Stage has managed to assemble what's probably the most deliriously perfect collection of talent in recent South Florida memory. Maybe they're not all Shakespearean, but they're all bizarrely talented and utterly swept up in their parts. Let us celebrate a few of them now.
Whenever I hear about Ken Clement acting in a new show, my colon claps in happy anticipation. The man is a monster, the most charismatic creature south of the Mason-Dixon line, and his impact is dulled not at all by the fact that he's got a relatively minor role here. Taking it easy as Friar Laurence, he kind of gives you the feeling that everybody else you've ever seen do the part was phoning it in. Although Clement probably has less than a hundred lines in the whole production, you walk out feeling like you could write the guy's biography. The sheer vehemence with which he rebukes Romeo for being a whiny little bitch when he cries in the chapel after his banishment tells you everything you need to know about the Friar's principles; how fiercely he must have fought for them and how passionately he'll guard them.
Kameshia Duncan! The Nurse has always been R&J's prime source of comic relief, but Kameshia Duncan actually makes you LOL. She warms to Shakespeare's old lines like butter warms on skillets, milking them for flavors of humor they don't usually possess. When the going gets rough in Act II (this R&J has only two acts), the loud, vibrant persona she so easily inhabited in Act I is not compromised by the abrupt switch to pathos. It is deepened instead, recasting a part that can and often is reduced to mugging and laugh-chasing as a three-dimensional, fully realized being.
Adam Simpson! Simpson's Mercutio is the closest The Naked Stage comes to that big, declamatory style of acting that is the hallmark of all things Shakespeare, but there's something terrifically modern about it about the nuances of emotions he chases, the way half of them come with a wink, and even his death scene seems to channel Matthew Lillard, cartoonish without being improper.
In contrast, real-life husband and wife Antonio and Katherine Amadeo play things pretty straight as the titular couple. They're older than the R&J we're used to Juliet is apparently twenty years old, and one would assume Romeo is much older and if there's a complaint to be made about The Naked Stage's production, it's that the particular species of love experienced by Romeo and Juliet is a little too wide-eyed, a little too frantic to be credibly attributed to nonteenagers. If R&J didn't die at the end of the play, they'd have enjoyed a few giddy months of hand-holding and moony-eyed gazes, realized they have nothing in common, and broken up via text message right around the time Romeo started surreptitiously sniffing about Rosaline's skirts once more. I think Mr. and Mrs. Amadeo grokked this concept pretty instinctively, and have done everything in their power to chase the sheer breathless poetry of their parts without allowing their characters to develop the same three dimensions Kameshia Duncan was just lauded for creating. If they tried developing those three dimensions, their characters would eventually have to display some grudging acknowledgment of their own monomaniacal behavior behavior that is first nature to the young and passionate, and sublimated beneath a clearly delineated set of social mores in the old and smart.
But that's life, and this is poetry. It's hard to imagine a time when the words, "what light through yonder window breaks" were not known and understood by every English-speaking person in the world, and it's even harder to quantify whatever weird alchemy of verse and spirit conspires to make them resonate, even now, when somebody says them just right. Like most of the best things in art, that alchemy is inexplicable. The best you can hope for is to catch it every now and again. The Naked Stage has it now.
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