Sunday, September 19, 2010

TBA festival: Nature Theater of Oklahoma treats 'Romeo and Juliet'

Robert M. Johanson & Anne Gridley in "Romeo and Juliet"
By Barry Johnson

I don't remember the details of Poetics: a ballet brut, the first time I saw the Nature Theater of Oklahoma (the name comes via Kafka's Amerika not Tulsa or something), at the Time-Based Art festival in 2006.  I just remember some rather energetic galumphing about the stage by untrained dancers to 1970s American dance music (aka disco and its offshoots).  It was played for laughs, as I recall, and some of it might have been funny. Or at least silly.

But NTOO has a wide reputation in the avant-garde, especially in Europe, and I didn't allow Poetics deter me from seeing their Romeo & Juliet, especially after the rave reviews that I'd heard from fellow TBA voyagers.  Which was a good idea, if I do say so myself.

The NTOO Romeo & Juliet has one thing in common with that deformed description of Poetics above, and it's the word "untrained."  The spine of the script for the show came from interviews with members of the company and company friends. They were asked to recount the plot of the real Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet, and their responses were assembled into a series of short monologues delivered by Anne Gridley and Robert M. Johanson (with a couple of appearances by a sexy chicken, enacted by Elisabeth Connor).

Gridley and Johanson did this recounting in mock Shakespearean theatrical speech, with flourishes and strange accents, such as bal-CONY.  And then at the end they get together onstage for an exchange about love, lust, vulnerability, neediness and acting isn't quite as serious as that list makes it sound.

The real humor comes from those Romeo and Juliet capsules and then the way they are personalized by the "characters" performing them.  And the little synopses come down to this: How closely were you paying attention back in high school when you read the original? Or maybe: How well do you remember the Baz Luhrman movie version of the play?  "Flunked. Flunked. I flunked the test," Gridley says at one point. So, that's what I mean by "untrained." The attempts to reconstitute the play are as clumsy as the dancing in Poetics.

The earliest accounts are the crudest. They get the two warring families right, and most remember Capulets and Montagues.  Romeo and Juliet meet at a party and fall in love,  and then there's some business with poison maybe? And stabbing? In a tomb? "Am I close?" Gridley asks several times.

Gradually, we hear from the somewhat better informed. They murder the balcony scene, but they start to get the mechanics of the plot right. And a note of skepticism starts to creep in -- is this a tale of love or something more common, namely, the animal heat of teenagers? Gridley's is especially insistent on this line of inquiry. Johanson is more romantic and goes into more wide-ranging explanations -- the relationship between the play, Anna Nicole and 9/11, for example. Gridley introduces Benvolio,  Mercutio, as I recall, and Tybalt, though these characters made little impression on the interviewees, apparently. Johanson expands upon Mercutio's great Queen Mab speech, "which everyone turns gay now."

Yes, I'm afraid the real Romeo and Juliet doesn't fare very well. And I'm wondering -- would it ever have done all that well? Beyond the caricature, beyond the balcony scene? And beyond the simple reduction to love thwarted  by social circumstances?  I don't think so, really. The plot synopsis doesn't begin to explain the greatness of Romeo and Juliet, which is in the poetry, the dance of language limning the dance in the ball, when the palms of Romeo and Juliet meet, and also in the particularities of the characters, their way of being human, their way of loving. We have to have the play in front of us for that, either the text or onstage.

The NTOO reminds us of this, the complexity of humans in contact with each other, their possibilities together, in that final scene, when Johanson and Gridley get together for the first time and talk about what's happened, without leaving "character," really, and to go where that talk takes them. Which, because they are actors, often is about acting, love and lust, sure, but also acting. "Can you say that to an entire audience? I really need you tonight?" And they fall in love, maybe, just as swiftly as Romeo and Juliet. A moment of attraction, a moment of honest intimacy to confirm -- sometimes that's all we need for romantic adventure to begin.

We may be tempted by the mutilation of Romeo and Juliet to start doubting its importance, simply because we can't remember its details.  Humans are terrible at remembering details, remembering them accurately at least. Our brains are poor recording devices. Life leaves impressions, not details.  When we need the details, we can go back for them. What's great about Romeo and Juliet is that when you go back or even stumble upon it, you find something wonderful, something that breaks and restores the human heart at the same time.

As a sort of encore, in the dark, Johanson and Gridley recite the balcony scene, Act Two, Scene Two, "But soft? What light through yonder window breaks. It is the east and Juliet is the sun..." I have the text in front of me as I type. Characteristically, Romeo is full of romantic talk, but Juliet gets down to business with her meditation on their problem: "What's in a name?" And then when Romeo, still full of moons and other romantic fluff, makes himself known, Juliet teaches him how to love, really love, in a swift verse or two: "If thou doth love, pronounce it faithfully."

The bal-CONY and the sweet, deep night don't make the scene great. It's the human understanding and the playwright's ability to sketch it with language. We can be forgiven for forgetting the details. We know where we can find it.


Mead said...

For me, anyway, the coda in the dark was the perfect counterweight to an evening suffused with yucks. We laugh (with affection, I believe, not derision) at the way human beings will inevitably fill in the gaps of a missing narrative. But does that trivialize Shakespeare? I don't think so. The final presentation of the balCONY scene reminds us that as overfamiliar and shopworn as the play can feel, the language really is entrancing. And it's stayed in our culture for 400+ years partly for that reason.

Barry Johnson said...

The real deal comes as a shock, doesn't it? Even though their recitation of it isn't particular wonderful, we don't need much for them to start to do their work. I love that rediscovery every time it happens to me!

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