The Wilma – Romeo and Juliet

Reviewers: Nan and Janae

The TakeAways

  • Stunning design
  • Relatively accessible and modern
  • Rich performances
  • Activation of the text in a new way

 

In Our Pockets

Nan: I love Shakespeare, and at the same time am so tired of theaters producing his work. It feels like the lazy choice. I’ve seen a couple of Shakespeares at the Wilma and had some opinions about the balance they strike between the text and more expressive performance choices. I heard about the changes they made to try and make the show more accessible, and I was interested to see how Anthony Martinez-Briggs and Gracie and the SoBeautifuls’ collaborative contributions would factor into cultural accessibility for this production.

Janae: I’ve done the play three times and grew up loving that Baz Luhrmann movie.

 

Design

Nan: The lights (Maria Shaplin) and the set worked together seamlessly– what a deft collaboration.

Janae: I agree. There were times when I found myself totally entranced by Shaplin’s dreamscape. I especially enjoyed the meeting of the lovers at the party.

Nan: Meanwhile, I didn’t really notice Chris Sannino’s sound design because of the prevalence of the live music.

Janae: I liked how it was peppered throughout. There were a couple of moments in which I wished the sound played a bigger role and got a bigger boost!

Nan: I think costume is where I want to see the most world building, with the heaviest lifting. Vasilija Zivanic’s costume design was able to be fairly understated and utilitarian, which impressed me. I appreciated that it didn’t try too hard.

Janae: I like that. Utilitarian. In the footwear especially you could see the restriction and freedoms of the women’s roles in particular.

Nan: Yes! Suli Holum’s stilettos (and tiny little politician’s wife dress). I felt like the actors had input in their costumes, which may or may not have been true, but is something I really appreciate seeing onstage. I like aesthetic that is aggressively story-driven. Likewise, I really enjoyed the set (Matt Saunders) right off the bat– I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fringe curtain utilized so spectacularly well, and I loved that it was both a curtain and a scrim and also had this amazing organic movement (unless there was a fan up there?) that created this unreal sparkle– what a versatile element to use as the only real set piece, repeated over in different sizes. I also thought the rolling fringe set pieces were all organized in very skillful set pictures.

Janae: I like when you say there was an unreal sparkle in the world, in this most glamorous of prison walls. I think that it speaks very much to the vision of our current world, the socio-economic separations and the fact that not all prison walls look like they do on the screen. They can also be decadent homes.

Nan: This is a little thing but I also really appreciated that the characters had to physically climb the back wall. I think it was very smart to have a physical wall of that height in the set. I had never really thought hard about the fact that Romeo has to climb a serious wall to get to Juliet’s balcony. It’s the mark of successful design when it gets you to rethink something you’ve seen way too many times.

Janae: Moving onto choreography.

Nan: There wasn’t a fight choreographer credited, which I guess means that Silvana Cardell, who is credited just as “choreographer” built those moments? I was surprised that there was no fight specialist in as fight-heavy a show as R&J, and though the knife fights sort of did what they needed to do, I don’t think the violence really “read” or had high enough stakes. I did enjoy Cardell’s work in the dance choreography, though.

Janae: I agree. I feel like there was nostalgia woven in a bit which left me feeling giddy. The violence was quick and dirty. But you’re right – I’ve been puzzling how distant I felt from the fights, even in the vault.

Nan: Major props to Gracie and the SoBeautifuls (Gracie Martin, Matt Mastronardi, Jordan McCree, Evan Raines) for their work. They sounded amazing and were also able to successfully integrate with the action for most of the show. I especially loved the moments in which Gracie or band members physically joined the action. I am really impressed by Martin’s ability to sound beautiful and also achieve raw and sometimes terrifying emotion in her singing voice.

Janae: Gracie Martin is a siren. I so enjoyed the composition and honestly would’ve wanted a bit more music throughout.

 

The performances

Nan: I think for the most part the performances were pretty understated. It didn’t evoke a big emotional response in me, but I was okay with that. I guess when tackling subject matter as well-trodden as R&J you really have to decide as an actor whether to find a fresh “in” or just play it simply and honestly. I think for the most part, the Wilma actors were mostly playing simplicity and honesty. In some ways it feels a hair disappointing because when I’m watching Shakespeare I want to see huge, earth-shaking emotion, but at the same time, it was a bit of a relief to just be able to sit back and catch what I could of the poetry, played simply and not too overwrought.

Janae: But I feel like there were some great, larger moments: Krista Apple as the nurse blathering on about young Juliet landed me right in the many conversations I’ve had with family on the phone. Taysha Canales as Juliet was exuberant and intellectual. Matteo Scammell as Romeo was emotional and prone to the fantastical.

Nan: Agreed about Krista Apple! I think the most successful performances were actually the ensemble roles where the actors had more of a chance to make bigger choices. Apple’s overly voluble but very funny Nurse, Suli Holum’s harsh but calculating Lady Cap, Anthony Martinez-Brigg’s Mercutio (which went off script but was more successfully ribald and jaunty than any Mercutio I’ve ever seen). Even Kevin Meehan’s Benvolio, who I’m pretty sure I went to college with.

 

The direction

Nan: I was surprised by how accessible this ancient show was, given my past experience of Wilma-style Shakespeare. I was skeptical about the decision to include a “chorus” of unpaid current University of the Arts students. Going in, I worried they were going to be a halfhearted (and cheap) attempt to bring more youth and color to the show. It felt tertiary and lower stakes, a way to engage with high schoolers in the audience by having young people onstage too, but not in roles with too much power. But in the end I really enjoyed the chorus; they added a lot to the show, and I wanted them around and speaking more. They served as necessary connective tissue, but if they’re ultimately the heart of the piece, why aren’t they playing speaking roles? I loved the choice to give Anthony Martinez-Briggs some free reign with Mercutio, but I wanted way more. When he came on as a sort of MC at the beginning I got so excited, but his presence really dropped off part-way through act one and then after dying, he didn’t re-appear again at all. So wasteful! I want an Anthony Martinez Briggs directed and MC-ed and starring role R&J.

Janae:  I would be curious to see how the young adults respond to the piece. I felt like there were moments that hedged on a nostalgia directed at my generation. I wonder what someone who is older thinks of it. I too wanted more done with the chorus. They felt foggy to me; I feel like I wanted them to connect closer to the meat of the world, especially in the beginning, so that their departure at the end would be more pronounced.

 

Why this play now?

Nan: This is definitely not a new play but I appreciated the willingness to change it up! I live for Martinez-Briggs’ Queen Mab freestyle, and the addition of the chorus’ rejection of the world of the play at the end was scary and eye-opening in a very good way.

Janae: Agreed.

Nan: I suppose I can appreciate the decision to do the play as a teaching tool (though why we insist that Shakespeare is the only core curriculum playwright, rather than POC and/or living playwrights I don’t know), but to be honest, even while I enjoyed this production, I don’t think anyone needs another dang R&J. The chorus’ three line reclamation of agency at the end was a first step into a really good reason why to still do this play, but I don’t know if that was really addressed otherwise.

Janae: I wonder what that reclamation of agency looks like at the Wilma.

Nana: It was definitely pretty frustrating to be granted a taste of that and end the play there.

Janae: More agency for the young people in this play!

 

Accountability

Nan: I’m not a fan of the fact that they’re not paying the UArts chorus members. They add so much to the show and clearly work hard. They’re mostly nonspeaking but also move set pieces– and not even a stipend? Really, Wilma? I think R&J, as written, is really only for older people who like Shakespeare and can afford to come to the theatre for things they’ve seen before. The Wilma sort of did better than that, and I hope the students who see the show will get more out of it than they would from a more mainstream production, but I’m not sure how much more there is to get. I appreciate that the cast included POC, but I’d have liked to see some non cis men in usually male-assigned roles, any kind of queerness (in terms of sexuality or trans* inclusion). They touched on some themes that are more here and now, but didn’t really commit to addressing them.

Janae:  There were some themes and characters that felt glanced at but not addressed in full. The apothecary/drug exchange in particular stuck out to me in this production.

Nan: I was also confused about the way the apothecary was depicted vis a vis drug use, social context, etc. The good thing about this productions is that it made all the issues feel relevant and contemporary – but because the play is the way it is, those issues and themes were picked up, examined briefly and then abandoned.

Janae: Say more.

Nan: We’ve got this question about how young people can regain their agency because they are tired of living in a world where teenagers kill themselves and each other based on miscommunication and inflexible family structures. But regaining their agency is only introduced in the last three lines, and then blackout. There’s the wall that Romeo has to scale to get to Juliet, and then Benvolio climbs to talk to banished Romeo– a motif that only appears those two times. Mercutio and Benvolio street harassing the nurse, and then we move past the moment like nothing happened. Tybalt smoking a joint and snorting something outside the party, the apothecary made up like an addict/grim reaper. Would you have to majorly change the play to accommodate investigating these issues in full? The Wilma seemed like they demonstrated a willingness to change the play to make it more accessible, so why not really narrow in on any of these issues? Or do a modern play that tells a similar story but actually really talks about these questions?

Janae: True. Now you’ve made me really wanna see an R&J that goes way off the rails. Like a Tybalt & Nurse or a Mercutio & Benvolio or an Mercutio & Nurse.

Nan: Yes please.

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