‘Romeo and Juliet,’ fresh again

Jaded from too many R&Js? Dámaso Rodriguez's production for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival makes the tale seem vital and new.

ASHLAND — Romeo and Juliet must be a theater director’s greatest challenge. How does one make what is arguably the best-known play in the English language fresh and new for audiences who have probably seen or read a version or several of this play already?

Ask Dámaso Rodriguez, who directs the production running through October 12 on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Allen Elizabethan Stage. He manages in a number of ways to make Romeo and Juliet something new, without gimmicks and while sticking closely to the original play.

Nurse (Robin Goodrin Nordli) tells Juliet (Emily Ota) that her cousin Tybalt has been killed and her husband Romeo has been banished from Verona. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

First, instead of casting the role of “Chorus,” he has the entire cast — shrouded in white or black cloaks — serve as the chorus. Romeo and Juliet, in fact, recite the opening setup, in which the narrator/Chorus tells us what is about to transpire. Having the star-crossed lovers themselves tell us their own fates has a profound impact here, because you find yourself wondering why, if they know what’s about to happen, can’t they stop it? Which is, as Rodriguez explains in the playbill, the real tragedy: “The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet isn’t their untimely death but the myriad ways it could have been avoided.” He heightens that sense of “WHY CAN’T THEY MAKE IT STOP?!” over and over, starting with them reading us their own fates.

Then there is the ambiguous era of this production. The clothing, by costume designer Leah Piehl, is pared-down and stylish, and could have easily been from the 16th century or today. The splendid scenic design, by Efren Delgadillo Jr., is more contemporary — mostly in its use of onstage beautiful white lights — but it’s still simple enough that you could believe this is occurring when Shakespeare lived.

This version also uses American Sign Language to powerful effect, as Lady Montague and the actor portraying her are deaf. The opening Chorus has the cast signing everything, setting up what will follow. As with the 2010 Hamlet, in which deaf actor Howie Seago played the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, the impact of sign language, with one actor telling the audience enough for us to understand the whole conversation, is profound. This is especially true when the bearer has bad news (as when a son has been banished or is dead).

The use of ASL because of Romeo’s mother also shifts the emphasis in this production to the parents. Don’t misunderstand: Emily Ota and William Thomas Hodgson as the young lovers are wonderful, and remarkably comfortable together, from their meeting (in front of mirrors, a nice touch given how fickle and narcissistic young love can be) to their final moments.

As Juliet (Emily Ota, right) and Paris (Armando McClain, left) are watched by expectant partygoers, Romeo (William Thomas Hodgson, center background) lays eyes on Juliet for the first time. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

What Rodriguez, the artistic director of Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, accomplishes is to show us how much the parents are to blame for what befalls the children. While the contrite Friar Lawrence (Michael J. Hume) carries most of the guilt at the play’s end, we all love him for caring about these characters—and for trying to bring Verona’s feuding families together. No, he is not at fault here.

It’s those parents, who pay no heed to their children when they have the chance. Greg Watanabe and Amy Newman are irrational and clueless, respectively, and they do it so well, you will want to shake them. Richard Elmore and Holt seem focused on anything and everything but their son, so it’s no surprise that they have no idea he is in love, married, or dead until it’s too late.

The only folks who do know, of course, are Friar Lawrence and the Nurse (Robin Goodrin Nordli). Nordli is marvelous as the clueless Nurse, giving so much affection for her sweet Juliet that you will forgive her withholding information, confusing things, and otherwise seeming totally oblivious (she’s not).

What is truly stunning in this production is not only its ability to give so much new to such a well-worn play, but also that it kept this theater critic—who has seen this play more times than I can count—hoping beyond belief that things would end up differently this time. It’s been a long time since a production of Romeo and Juliet has made me feel that way. Credit goes to Hodgson and Ota, for making me want their love to last (and especially to Ota, who plays Juliet as far too wise to not pick up on everything before it’s too late). But it also goes to Rodriguez for pulling this together into a swift, tragic, but ultimately hope-filled Romeo and Juliet.

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Capulet (Greg Watanabe) lashes out at his daughter Juliet (Emily Ota), shocking Lady Capulet (Amy Newman, left) and Nurse (Robin Goodrin Nordli). Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2018

 

 

 

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