by Jeff Grygny
Voices Found Repertory gives young theater artists the precious opportunity to challenge, and be challenged by, the great works of the past. In their earnest, no-frills production of Romeo and Juliet, currently playing at the Interchange Theater Co-Op, we can see this pas de deux of old and new in action, and it’s the tension that makes the performance engaging.
It’s like a TV show set in a theatrical universe where the social norms are patriarchal, but the Prince is a stern woman in a ball gown, the street toughs crack Elizabethan puns and duel with knives, but everyone displays the body language and emotional registers of 21st Century Americans. First-time director Phillip Steenbekkers has coached his actors to understand exactly what they’re saying and why they’re saying it; to discover the human hearts beating within the 400 year old words, and translate them into characters contemporary audiences will understand. This is how theater should work, isn’t it? Aside from occasional whisperiness, the casts’ diction is good; Shakespeare’s lines aren’t naturalistic, but they make them sound natural, while creating characters that we can easily relate with. Most impressively, the artists ask deep questions about this most famous of love stories. Plain vanilla boy-girl romance isn’t much in vogue these days: this production looks hard at its two young lovers and comes up with its own answers.
Amber Weissert plays Juliet as a fourteen-year-old, a choice accentuated by her little girl outfit. She accents her frustrations with very relatable adolescent roars. At the same time, she’s sensitive enough to deliver some of the greatest poetry ever written, and seems enchanted by the words coming to her as she paces on that balcony. Similarly, Max Pink’s Romeo seems to enjoy just being Romeo: he’s an affable presence, perhaps more British cool than Italian fire, but with a fevered imagination that impels him to reckless deeds. The overall effect is to present these two kids as driven more by the idea of being in love than by actual passion, or god forbid, horniness. Instead, this play’s emotional core is in its platonic relationships: Romeos’ friendship with his bros Benvolio and Mercutio; the mutual affection between Juliet and her nurse.
As Juliet’s father, Kyle Conner presents a high-strung control freak prone to rage, but hardly a villain. Liv Mauseth’s Nurse is a fabulous American take on a timeless character: the kind of woman who can go teary with sentiment and then bellow off an order in the next breath; Josh Decker has a great time bringing high goofball energy to the role of Mercutio, playing with out-there vocal dynamics and antic gesticulations. As the Prince, Faith Klick’s soft voice carries more authority than any angry shouting. And in the role of the classic Shakespearean clown, Hannah Kubiak runs off with many a scene as a buffoonish servant to house Capulet.
In his classic study of courtly love, the scholar Denis De Rougemont suggested that modern attitudes toward romance were forged in a literary cult of medieval troubadours who found mystical transcendence in an overheated (and frankly, not very healthy) tango between sex and death. This isn’t a mood we entertain much today: pop psychology and the zeitgeist warn us not to invest too much emotional energy in just one person. Voices Found’s Romeo and Juliet shows us this modern view of romance. Rather than a passion for the ages, it shows us two self-dramatizing kids whose tragedy amounts to a spontaneous lark gone south. Poetry is gorgeous, but dangerously seductive. Not as grand a vision, perhaps, but certainly in tune with our current mood of reduced expectations.
Voices Found Repertory presents
Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
playing through May 28