“Death is my son-in-law”
Early last week a friend asked me, “What’s the deal with Shakespeare? Why do theater people love Shakespeare? With all the plays, old and new, that are floating around out there, why Shakespeare?”
Only half-kidding, I replied, “Because he’s been dead so long, you can do whatever you want to his plays, and you don’t have to pay him.”
That is, of course, only half of it. The guy wrote, or rewrote, good stories, with meaty characters, and some amazing poetry, some of the best in the English language. Directors want to tackle those stories, designers want to recreate those worlds, and actors want to inhabit those roles and get them on their resumes. I’m just as guilty as anyone of being a Shakespeare junkie sometimes. It’s canon. It’s familiar.
Sometimes too familiar. That’s why early last week, my friend and I sat and watched five theater companies knock the stuffing out of “Romeo and Juliet” for a fundraiser for the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Each company took an act and turned it inside out, and the audience lapped it up - a combination of getting the inside jokes and a good old-fashioned burning in effigy. All this, right on the heels of yet another production of “Romeo and Juliet” which 3am Productions staged.
And now, Four Humors.
Much has been made of the concept - “forget that they die at the end, we all know they die at the end.” Honestly, I didn’t get it, until I saw the Four Humors production of “Romeo and Juliet” directed by Jason Ballweber. They mean, “Don’t take it all so damn seriously.” Rather than do what was done earlier in the week, laughing *at* Romeo and Juliet, Four Humors is doing the harder thing, laughing *with* them. Four Humors is striking at the heart of why most productions of the play “Romeo and Juliet” drive me crazy, and it was something I wasn’t entirely clear on until now. Though I love the poetry of the script, the characters and the story drove me nuts because everyone seemed like a gibbering moron to me. Siskel and Ebert used to describe “Romeo and Juliet” as the quintessential “idiot plot” - the kind of plot where the whole thing would fall apart like a house of cards if everyone involved wasn’t a complete and utter idiot. It’s classic “Plot Convenience Playhouse,” full of simple mistakes and stunningly boneheaded moves. But the reason most productions of “Romeo and Juliet” don’t work - actors are playing the poetry, rather than just being the characters. Theaters are staging a sweeping, epic tragedy - playing the end at the beginning. It’s only a tragedy if we first get to see what’s being lost - something sweet and funny and beautiful. Someone lifting up their boot to show they’ve crushed a butterfly isn’t half as affecting as having seen the butterfly take flight before its untimely end. Four Humors’ production of “Romeo and Juliet” wisely allows the lovers to take flight before the boot comes down. Heartache is only heartache because something so good is ripped away from you.
The other smart thing Four Humors does is invite the audience in on the action. No, not the dreaded audience participation. More like audience engagement. Lines are not just directed between the characters. Often the actors turn to the audience and address them. Occasionally, the actors move into the seats, or even try to hide in the crowd. We are all the citizens of fair Verona. It’s not “Watch us do ‘Romeo and Juliet’” but rather “Join us in this story we’re telling.” The only place the production stumbles for me is in the second half, when the story retreats from the audience in this regard. Maybe the production feels it has the audience fully reeled in already, or maybe it doesn’t want to throw the unraveling fortunes of the characters in the spectators’ face. Either way, I missed that connection so present in the early going.
This feeling of community in the first half is reinforced by the Irish folky style of the band. Brant Miller, one of the Four Humors founders, jams with some singularly good musicians (one wasn’t present the night I saw it so I’ll name them all for safety’s sake - Scott Lund, Andrew Lynch, and Andy Spansler). Lively, loud, boisterous, often incomprehensible to my non-Irish ears, I didn’t mind. They were a hell of a lot of fun. They acted as de facto ushers, guiding the crowd from the lobby into the theater at the start and after intermission, and kept the spirit of the parties of the play alive both on and offstage. (Side note - More unlikely than three doses of “Romeo and Juliet” in less than a month, the use of Snoop Dogg’s song “Gin and Juice” in two productions running across town from one another at the same time. See Walking Shadows’ “The American Pilot.” No, seriously, see that show, too.)
Another big plus, no sword fights. Most of the scrapping onstage is physical in nature, with the occasional dagger thrown in for deadly measure. The opening clash of Montague and Capulet servants, friends and relatives is hilariously hurried off, out into the lobby where the audience just gets to hear metal clanking against metal beyond the curtain while the cast ohs and ahs about it. The refreshing lack of fight choreography - capital F, capital C - is an enormous relief.
Set? No worries, designer Sam Johns ingeniously paints suburban house silhouettes in bright childish colors on plastic sheeting and then hoists them into the air on strings at either end of the playing space - one side Capulet, one side Montague. Every now and again, roll on a screen door frame, or lower a flower box from the rafters for Friar Laurence. At the end, the houses themselves are lowered, falling into misshapen blobs and making a suitably creepy graveyard setting. Great, scrappy solution to multiple locations without getting bogged down in scene change hell.
So, as it should, stripped of all the usual distractions, it all comes down to the words and performances. Any “Romeo and Juliet” rises and falls on its title characters, and Four Humors has a great pair of actors. Jason Bohon as Romeo and Elise Langer as Juliet are just... well, real people. You believe they’re feeling the things they’re talking about. There is no better example than the balcony scene (I know, the dreaded balcony scene). Rather than reverently caressing each and every syllable of the text, Langer and Bohon say the words the way two people giddy with love would. The words tumble out of their mouths. The competing trains of thought ricochet back and forth, and their conversation - both talking to themselves and each other - reflects this dizzying swirl of emotion. They respect us enough to figure we can keep up and parse out the meaning, since they so clearly know it, rather than spoon-feeding us each phrase and idea. Bohon’s Romeo goes from being a guy drunk on the drama of unrequited love to actually reveling in the real thing when Langer’s Juliet returns his affection. They’re not just cute (in a good way) with each other, they’re a lot of fun to watch engaging the other actors in the ensemble as well.
If there’s another big “oh no, here it comes” moment in “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s that friggin’ “Queen Mab” speech. Here again, the production pulls it off by engaging the audience rather than just showing off for it. In fact, Colin Waitt’s Mercutio, normally a character that grabs much of act one and walks off with it, I actually found myself wanting more, not less, of. Always a good thing.
Speaking of scene stealers, Kimberly Richardson and her exaggerated costume of sagging breasts as the Nurse adds another colorful character to her expanding rogues gallery of loons.
Women abound in this “Romeo and Juliet.” There’s a nice streak of cross-gender casting going on - from larger key roles like the hot-headed Tybalt (Katie Jorgenson) and wingman (er, wing person) Benvolio (Sara Richardson), to supporting roles like the Apothecary (Kate Dorrough), Assistant to the Prince (Haley Honeman), and the theater world’s worst message courier Friar John (Maria Effertz).
After three years of large ensemble productions, the Four Humors crew has a pretty deep bench as far as the acting company is concerned. In addition to strong first-time Humorists like Dan Peltzman as Friar Laurence, Jeff Broitman as Lord Capulet, Jean Salo as Lady Capulet, Ryan Lear as Paris, Craig Anderson as Lord Montague, and Mark Rehani as the Nurse’s right hand Peter, this production boasts repeat Four Humors performers in supporting roles like Lady Montague (Rachel Petrie), the Prince (Jim McDoniel), and no less than three of the Artistic Directors of the company (Brant Miller, Nick Ryan, and Matt Spring) joining Mike Rylander as dueling servants of the warring houses of Capulet and Montague. It’s fun to go to a production like this and see that every role, regardless of size, has a solid performer taking it on and giving it real dimension.
Honestly, before I went, much as I admire Four Humors, I was afraid this was going to be one “Romeo and Juliet” too many for me. Now, I’m exceedingly glad I went anyway. It was so good, it’s probably the last “Romeo and Juliet” I’ll ever need to see (that is, until some other talented group of artists proves me wrong. After Four Humors’ “Romeo and Juliet,” for a change, I’m actually looking forward to that.)
Very Highly Recommended.
Four Humors’ production of “Romeo and Juliet” has one week of performances left at Bedlam Theater (1501 South 6th Street on the West Bank in Minneapolis). There’s a special Monday night Pay What You Can performance on 5/12 at 8pm. Then they wrap up the run with four weekend performances - Thursday and Friday at 8pm, 5/15 and 5/16, and 2pm and 8pm performances to close things off on Saturday 5/17. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students, seniors and Fringe button holders. For reservations and further information (and a video trailer) visit www.fourhumorstheater.com or www.bedlamtheatre.org