Jed Peterson ’06 has created an epic version of the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet – so creative and grand that his remains the best Shakespeare performed at Princeton in the past few years and the best play thus far of Princeton’s 2005-2006 theatrical season.
The success of this play comes in large part from the inspired performance of thespian extraordinaire John Doherty ’06.
If this play is the East, Mr. Doherty is the sun in his triple-threat performance as Paris, Prince Escalus, and Mercutio. Measure for measure, Mr. Doherty calculates each of his roles with thrilling reaction to the other characters on stage. In his active listening and elasticity, he achieves that rare quality of reciting Shakespeare as if not memorized but rather in a natural flow: responding to those around him just at the moment of the performance. Even for those who know him well, he transforms so drastically in each of his three roles that he becomes almost unrecognizable when switching between characters.
As a socially-incompetent, self-effacing Paris vying for Juliet’s love, Mr. Doherty speaks slowly and mopes around all choked-up; his diminutive manner makes him appear gaunt and pale with acting so powerful that his very body seems transformed. And as the Prince, he fattens the role in a smart way: carrying around a tissue and mediating the Montague-Capulet feud with calculated sniffles and an ambiguously Semitic-Brooklyn accent.
The pinnacle of his performance comes in his drunken stumbling, pelvic thrusting, dirty gesticulating, divinely beautiful portrayal of Mercutio. He cat calls to Romeo in kissy-poo play, he dances on benches in drunken stupor, he speaks of dreams in fantastical leaps, and he even moons the audience (Nice ass – Five Minute Buns works!) in mocking Romeo’s histrionic moping. He dances around the Berlind as if it was built to have him act there. And how beautifully it has been constructed for this performance!
The scenery is minimalist, simply constructed of believably-marble Doric columns that flank arches. A sweeping staircase stage-right leads to an elevated promenade equally appropriate for Romeo’s slaying of Tybalt and the balcony scene. When the construction allows itself to symbolize the elevated drama, the stage designer, Tarryn Chun ’06, has achieved the type of success where form accentuates function.
The scene, though, becomes increasingly baroque with the addition of splashed red in long tapestry-like pieces of fabric that hang in the arches. The red hints at the bloodiness of the tragedy as the color appears in streamers that fly across the stage during duels or in the neckties and handkerchiefs of the actors.
Though the costuming appears as elegant and exquisite with white and black for all – hinting at the separation between Montague and Capulet – the flickers of sartorial red enhance the visual spectacle of the generally simple color scheme.
After Shannon Lee Clair ’09, who, as chorus, plays a subtly dominant role throughout, delivers the opening sonnet, we get a montage of the characters in part Bolshevik, part Italian Fascist, part North Korean fascist marching. To the tune of pounding drums and eerie violins, the feuding families stamp and stomp in exact choreography. This opening precision of movement – even from the most gauche of characters – deserves mention with praise directed to the choreographic efforts of Sarah Outhwaite ’09, also a poised and maternal Lady Capulet. In the opening marches, characters taunt each other and bite their thumbs; with a particular and curious tension between Mr. Doherty and Casey Ford Alexander ’09.
Mr. Alexander, lauded as a great asset to campus arts mostly by himself, remains a blemish to this beautiful show. As Tybalt, his anger seems forced, for he remains more concerned with how the audience will view his high cheekbones than with how to play his character. As the apothecary, he attempts to create a false pan-Caribbean/Jamaican accent, which flops in its inappropriateness; here Mr. Peterson should have made an executive decision to cut.
At the ball scene, Mr. Alexander haunts the elevated landing as if on a catwalk, and his subsequent fight with Capulet (Lucas Barron ’08) remains full of rage and sexual tension. But throughout it all, Mr. Alexander as the “Prince of Cats” is more into himself than his character – obviously subscribing to the solipsistic, as opposed to the Stanislavsky, school of acting.
Mr. Barron, on the other hand, plays a refreshing Capulet with flagrant public displays of affectation, adding an element of pretentious lock-jaw and staggering movement to the role. His bursts of anger at Juliet are jarring, and his sudden composure afterward makes him at once humorous and haunting.
Roger Q. Mason ’08 keeps the theatrical iron hot by getting in touch with his feminine side as Juliet’s nurse. In an amorphous dress and strategically applied bronzer, Mr. Mason appears a matronly image of femininity strong enough to serve as panderer between the lovers and delicate enough to coo in Romeo’s ear, ensuring that his intentions with Juliet are in earnest. There is a certain hacked, throaty wrench to his tone – splicing syllables, rolling the guttural grunts deep in his belly to bring originality and dominance to this role.
The dead-on textual interpretation of the characters allows their lines to be delivered with the emotion, innuendo, and tone Shakespeare himself, sans doute, intended. Mr. Peterson must receive credit for this keen understanding of Shakespeare’s language. When Mr. Mason tells Juliet that “women grow by men,” he gestures the outline of a pregnant belly, emphasizing the dual significance that men figuratively and anatomically fertilize women to enhanced states of fecundity. Mr. Doherty takes another approach in his oral demonstration of flatulence at the appearance of the word “wind.”
And then, of course, there is the titular duo themselves: Irene Lucio ’08 as Juliet, and Sam Zetumer ’09, as Romeo, make a believable pair of lovers so emotional that at a performance last weekend, a woman yelped audibly at Ms. Lucio’s deliverance of the line “parting is such sweet sorrow.” Their most dramatic scene occurs when they perform a sort of interpretive dance with a silver silken sheet to intimate their lovemaking.
In this very fashion, the play, in both originality and faithfulness, comes to climax in a spectacular production.