Literary Arts Portland Book Festival 2022 Portland Oregon Events

You cannot call it love … or can you?

Theater review: Salt and Sage’s ambitious dual productions of "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet" reckon with deep questions about love and mortality.

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Salt and Sage’s “Hamlet” plays out as if on a chess board. Photo: Heath Hyun

When you’re in love and you begin to ask yourself Do I really love this person, or is this just an illusion? It kinda sucks. Or after a serious breakup, if you find yourself asking: Was any of that real? It’s painful and confusing. And when you see two tragedies like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet (now running through August 27 in Salt and Sage productions at Shaking the Tree) performed by the same cast, night after night, the plays as a pair ask each other troubling questions. When they ask, for example, what real love actually is, the plays, at times, do provide answers. But they also thrust us further than the reach of certainty, into a poetic and dramatic world of ambiguity.

Mounting any one of Shakespeare’s plays is taxing enough. Staging two shows requires true grit in both the ensemble and production team. And this ambition and rigorousness hang in the air during the shows. The gutsiness of it is what live theater is all about. 

These productions are scrappy and unpretentious. They have a definite DIY air about them. In one performance, for example, batteries fell out from the bottom of a fake candle someone was holding. In another, the guitar was wildly out of tune. One night multiple actors kept tripping over various parts of the set. But those little hiccups were, in a way, endearing, given the depth and magnitude of what was being presented. There was, though, one aspect of the shoe-string budget vibe that wasn’t endearing: Two loud box fans were left on above the stage, which made it hard to hear at times. That was just distracting. 

That said, go see these shows. If you can only make it to one of the two, go see Romeo and Juliet. Please, go see Ashlee Radney bring down the house as Juliet. 

In this leading role, Radney gives a masterclass in playing Shakespeare. She speaks the heightened text with such clarity and control it’s like the words are reins within her hands. When she fixes her eyes skyward and shouts “Gallop apace you fiery footed steeds!” the lower registers of her voice resonate through her feet into the floor and you can feel it in your seat. You see her actually seeing a team of flaming horses tear across the sky. She is so rooted in the reality of her character’s given circumstances that her imagination hijacks our imagination and she makes us see what isn’t there. Radney also understands the conflicting forces within her character that produce tragic outcomes. More importantly, she calls our attention to them. 

Murren Kennedy and Ashlee Radney as Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Heath Hyun

For example, when Juliet first kisses Romeo (played by Murren Kennedy) at the masquerade, something strange comes over her. She looks confused. Possessed, for a split second, by the question: is this real? Radney brilliantly tells us, with just a look, that part of Juliet distrusts the dreaminess of this encounter. And so the immediacy with which she then pulls Romeo in for a second kiss suggests, not love at first sight, but addiction at first taste. 

Whatever Juliet is feeling, it is obviously awesome. But the question persists: Is it real?

That question never seems to enter Romeo’s mind. 

I like Murran Kennedy’s interpretation of Romeo because, right off the bat, it is surprisingly playful. I expected a more despondent Romeo at the beginning of the play because that’s when he’s supposed to be mourning his old thaaang, Rosalind. But while Kennedy’s approach was light-hearted, there was still self-destructive energy nestled within it. At one point Romeo talks about being able to read his own fortune in his own misery, and instead of saying “misery” Kennedy says “mizzzerraaaayyyy.” It is funny but foreboding. You get the sense that Romeo’s need to love and be loved is so strong he doesn’t actually care whether the love is real or not.

But the more I watched Romeo and Juliet, the more I remembered that this question of what real love is, is not strictly, or even mainly a romantic one. It’s a question that comes up between children and their parents or parental figures all the time. 

Allison Anderson, as Juliet’s Nurse, stands out in this ensemble. The Nurse’s investment in Juliet is bound up with the loss of her own child, Susan. Anderson plays this simultaneous love for both Juliet and her dead Susan, which complicates her love and makes it dramatic. For example, in the scene when she tells Juliet to settle for the wrong guy, you can hear the entire weight of her backstory in her voice. She just wants Juliet to live! But the way Anderson plays her, especially when her laughter fades, or when her eyes fall to the floor, we sense that the Nurse unconsciously knows that before long Juliet will die, and she will lose another daughter. 

Laura Grace Bouxsein and Allison Anderson in “Hamlet” Photo: Heath Hyun

Peter Platt’s performance as Lord Capulet gets at this. When Juliet defies him and says she’s not going to marry who he wants her to, Platt has an epic, over-the-top King Lear-level tantrum. He paces furiously around the black and white chessboard tiling of the set. His meltdown makes us ask whether he really loves Juliet, or simply loves that up until this point, he has been able to move her like a chess piece all around the board. Platt makes us see that Lord Capulet’s outrage at Juliet’s individuality reveals his frustrating conflation of love and ownership. 

What we think of as real love is sometimes called into question by our families. Alexander Buckner, as Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, warns Ophelia not to trust Hamlet’s affections. Essentially, he says Hamlet really jerst wernts ter ferrk. Buckner’s stoicism, and his deep baritone, at first, are protective masks. Then after Ophelia dies, Buckner erupts into sincere, howling grief. 

Bobby Bermea, as Ophelia’s father, Polonius, likewise tells her that she is wrong to believe Hamlet’s love is real. And Bermea doesn’t play Polonius as the traditional bumbling buffoon. He speaks quickly and confidently, which works to comic effect in those moments when we know Polonius is totally incorrect.  

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One distinctive way these plays contrast is the extent to which the audience gets to witness the love between the pairs of lovers. In Romeo and Juliet we actually get to see them be all gooey and booey.  But in Hamlet, Shakespeare doesn’t give us any booey moments between Hamlet and Ophelia. Mostly we just get Hamlet being a dick to her, and then after she dies he’s like “BUT DUDE I TOTALLY LOVED HER THOUGH.” This prompts the question, was his cruelty actually part of a performance? Or does he just hate all women the way he hates his mother?

Director Asae Dean addresses this problem with one gorgeous stroke at the top of the play. She gives us a private moment between Hamlet and Ophelia. It isn’t in Shakespeare’s text. She has them simply sitting together on a small white bench, singing the saddest song of all time, Fourth of July, by the sad-king (as distinct from sad-boy) Sufjan Stevens.

So here we have Hamlet and Ophelia, staring into each other’s eyes, singing explicitly apologetic lyrics like:

“And I’m sorry I left 

but it was for the best

 though it never felt right.

or lyrics that  made them feel like spirits, after death, reflecting on what happened during life:

“The evil it spread 

like a fever ahead 

it was night when you died

my firefly.”

finally, together they repeat the refrain: 

“We’re all gonna die…

  We’re all gonna die” 

etc. 

Alex Albrecht in the title role of “Hamlet.” Photo: Heath Hyun

And so Dean carves out this profound, tender place for the pair to exist. A heavenly place apart from the violence, lies, and confusion in the script. By doing this, Dean seems to say, Yes, Hamlet’s love for Ophelia was and is in fact real. It was an eerily beautiful way to frame their tragedy. 

One problem with the Hamlet production was that while Alex Albrecht is clearly a capable actor, who brought care and presence to this performance, his Hamlet had a comedic energy that to my taste was misplaced and overstated. He seemed to be constantly smiling. On the verge of a joke. When he accosts his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because he knows they are betraying him, I wanted to feel the gravity of that betrayal. Albrecht played it as an almost jovial encounter, which obscured the heartbreak the audience needs to sit with at that late point in the play. 

In Romeo and Juliet, there were also some small performance problems, particularly with the portrayal of Mercutio by Juliet Mylan. Mylan rushed the daunting but important Queen Mab speech, blurring all its images together. Again, it’s not a question of capability. For Mylan’s Mercutio, it’s just a matter of slowing down and breathing between the lines. I liked Mylan much more as Horatio in Hamlet. There, she seemed more relaxed and connected to the text and their scene partners. 

Sure, these productions are rough around the edges. But ultimately, the deep and beautiful questions posed by the plays have a cumulative effect that outweighs their imperfections. 

Chris Gonzalez is a playwright, poet, journalist, musician, and educator based in Portland. He is an Emerging Journalist Fellow at Oregon Public Broadcasting. He was the recipient of the James Baldwin Memorial Scholarship Fund Award for Playwrighting from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has written dramatic criticism for Oregon ArtsWatch, The Oregonian, The Portland Mercury, and Willamette Week, and taught Devised Physical Theater at Portland Playhouse and the School of Contemporary Dance and Thought. In Fall 2021 he was Artist in Residence at CoHo Theater, where he wrote and directed his first short film, "OK ABNER." His next film, "Wren Lavelle," will come out in 2022.

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