Ancient Grudge

The Old Globe Theatre’s staging three of Shakespeare’s plays about love: star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, gender-crossed All’s Well That Ends Well (in which the woman gets to choose her husband), and double-crossed Merry Wives of Windsor (in which Falstaff undergoes a triple comeuppance). The latter two take place around Shakespeare’s time, and directors can relocate them anywhere without doing major damage. Romeo and Juliet, however, is set in Renaissance Italy and locked into its  era.

Romeo and Juliet lived when the economy was based on land. The world was fixed: people had their stations (even a Great Chain of Being to remind them where they stood). In such a system, vows were  eternal.

All’s Well and Merry Wives take place when a commercial economy (and a rising middle class) was edging out the land-based system. Money, bartering, and contractual agreements determined value. Things became relative, and vows lasted only as long as a contract stipulated. In money-based Troilus and Cressida, for example, Pandarus calls their relationship a “bargain,” as if they bought their love on sale at  Sears.

Romeo and Juliet’s world is permanent. Social obligations such as marriage aren’t subject to debate. And their families’ “ancient grudge” could last forever. In this system, true love must be absolute or perish — which is why they’re as passionate for death as for each other. To quote Prospero, “every third thought” of theirs, it seems, is “of the  grave.”

For the Old Globe Theatre, director Richard Seer sets the play, wisely, in its time. Anna R. Oliver’s costumes include the slashed fronts and sleeves (with contrasting fabrics inside) of the period. Women wear bulk; men, tights (which a female friend of mine once called “the tackles and halfbacks look”). Iron gates and stained-glass windows dominate Ralph Funicello’s stained-wood set. And York Kennedy’s splendid lighting not only candle- and torch-lights scenes, it also finds that mystical source — from somewhere above and to the side — that illumines the works of Tintoretto and Caravaggio: amid darkness (“every third thought”), the lovers  glow.

Stage pictures often resemble painting; the color scheme (reds and burnt oranges, dark greens and blues) recalls Brueghel. The director also employs repeated patterns. Juliet’s hand reaches down twice for Romeo, once alive, once  dead.

But Seer breaks the picture frame, so to speak. Romeo and Juliet address their soliloquies to the house. If the choice is meant to endear them to us, they  don’t need it. (I  can’t think of anyone audiences could care about more than these two.) And including us in their private thoughts breaks their tragic isolation. They’re no longer just two kids  alone.

The night I saw the show, Graham Hamilton settled in as Romeo about a third of the way through (the entire production did, for that matter). At first, he dashed off his poetry as if it were prose. Later, he began to mean what Romeo meant. He hit his accents and improved considerably. That Heather Wood’s Juliet is blonde  shouldn’t upset spectators. (One of Italy’s most beloved women, St. Claire of Assisi, had straw-colored hair.) Wood not only expresses Juliet’s youth and intelligence; she has a naturally melodic voice that only rings false when, in her later speeches, she tries to add melody to  it.

Actors playing Juliet’s father usually give him a jovial mien. Wynn Harmon does too, until he explodes at his daughter and the generations of Montague/Capulet violence flare in his eyes. As Lady Capulet, Kandis Chappell reveals her rage without words, in grinding teeth and thousand-yard stares. Though he tends to rush his lines, James R. Winker splits Friar Laurence in half, as if star-crossed by belief and human contradictions. Jonathan McMurtry in several roles, Owiso Odera as a near-manic Mercutio, and a game Deborah Taylor as the life-loving nurse make useful  contributions.

The production offers strong visuals, and the story, as it does so often in Shakespeare, works on elemental levels (moving, for example, from brightly lit early scenes to the darkness of the tomb). But the second half’s a mite stately and restrained. It honors the Bard but could improve if it unleashed the tragedy’s operalike  impulses.

* * *

FIELD NOTES: In a way, the change from a land- to a money-based economy — from fixed to market value — resembles Major League Baseball before and after free agency. Up to the early ’60s, players stayed on the same team: Henry Aaron was a Brave forever, Mickey Mantle a Yankee; loyalty was lifelong. After free agency, top players went to the highest bidder, often changing teams every few years. With exceptions such as Tony Gwynn — bless his line-drive-lacing heart — few players after free agency had monogamous baseball  careers.

The shift also reflects our times in general, which have moved from modernist certitude to post- and post-postmodernist skepticism. Many of the tensions in Shakespeare, especially his fear of a world turned upside-down — of what he calls “degree o’erthrown” — come from the clash between the emerging, money-based economy and the medieval, land-based  system.

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa  Park

Directed by Richard Seer; cast: Heather Wood, Kandis Chappell, Celeste Ciulla, Graham Hamilton, Wynn Harmon, Charles Janasz, Jonathan McMurtry, James R. Winker, Sam Henderson, Owiso Odera, Deborah Taylor, Kern McFadden, John Keabler, Michael Kirby, Anthony von Halle; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Anna R. Oliver; lighting, York Kennedy; sound and original music, Christopher R. Walker; fight director, Steve Rankin; choreographer, Wesley  Fata

Playing through September 28; note: Romeo and Juliet runs in repertory with The Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well. Call the theater for days and times of each. 619-232-5623.

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