Instinctually, I am a purist when it comes to Shakespeare, but if something truly innovative can be done that brings out new aspects of the play, then I say full speed ahead. I found myself utterly engrossed by the Red Theater Company’s “R+J: Martha’s Vineyard” in which the two titular characters, as well as many of the Montagues and a few others, are deaf. It surprised me that such a conceit worked so well. Romeo and Juliet is one of my favorite plays, and although unlike most of my contemporaries I still find its theme of love at first sight highly romantic, I certainly most value the play’s lyricism which has retained the play’s special place among Shakespeare’s “minor tragedies” is a century that has increasingly complex and even cynical views concerning romantic love.
The night I watched the play, the projector was broken and I am not sure what effect that had either on the staging or the comprehension as certain language was delivered in sign language without translation, in particular the scene in which Romeo and Juliet first meet and Romeo entreats “Lips to do what hands do: they pray [kiss].” Fortunately, I knew much of the plays lines by heart, and it was particularly moving to see Juliet (the suitably lovely and feisty McKenna Leisman) and Romeo (an extremely talented, handsome, and romantic Brendan Connelly) in scenes together in which “thoughts without words” were exchanged. That line, like so many of the themes that I had never dwelt deeply on: such as language “[I can read] if I know the letters and the language” and miscommunication, came out as I watched the deaf actors interact while the stately and winsome Lady Capulet (Kelli Walker) held together the play’s lyricism with her person, costume, and the flawless delivery of perfectly metered iambic pentameter in ways which where nonetheless charged with meaning and passion.
I was not a huge fan Aaron Sawyer’s choice to infuse the play with so much comedy (it seems inappropriate a story about teenager’s in love but whose parent’s opposition to their match based on some sort of proto-ethnic or organized crime conflict causes them to commit suicide). However, it is a common enough way of staging this play, and he does handle the progressive transition from comic to tragic very seamlessly as the play moves on. I also wished he’d handled the tomb in scene more traditionally, but have again seen it done by other directors this way and they were always far to heavy handed whereas Sawyer, by contrast employs, considerable artistry and restraint given the intensity of the situation created.
Anyone who didn’t read the note in the program about Martha’s Vineyard (unless they were exceptionally knowledgeable or had been there) would have been confused by the play’s setting. I’m not sure that it added that much except for letting the scenic designer (John Wilson) make a world that looked nautical and fantastic (It looked more like The Tempest rather than Romeo and Juliet) but remarkably effective. I appreciated the stars on the wall and on the ceiling, which would light and dim, reminding us of the challenging of navigating love that always seems to be “star crossed” and our belief that our lovers are thing that can enrich night’s heaven.
” R+J: Martha’s Vineyard” is playing through February 20th, 2016 at the Den Theatre located at 1333 W. Milwaukee Ave. Productions are Thursday’s through Sunday’s at 7:30 pm. The show runs for 1 hour and thirty minutes. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. More information can be found at https://redtheater.org/tickets
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