By Matt Ocks, Manager of Institutional Giving
The Arden’s production of Romeo and Juliet runs for just 2 more weeks, and I, for one, will be a bit sadder than usual to see this one end. In my spare time, you see, I’m a playwright (or, rather, I try to be), and one of the things that draws me to the Arden is the company’s commitment to actually producing new plays. But I wasn’t inspired to become a writer by the work of my contemporaries, or even writers a bit older than me. Or even really old guys like Edward Albee (who I hope doesn’t read this blog.) I was inspired, first and foremost, by Shakespeare. (Well actually Chekhov and then Shakespeare, but the Terry Nolen production of Uncle Vanya I’ve been waiting for since I got here is, sadly, still not on the horizon, so we’ll just keep this part in parentheses).
The first Shakespeare play I read was Merchant of Venice. By accident. I found it in a shoebox filled with my mom’s dusty college paperbacks and opened it when I was around 10 without realizing that it wasn’t a novel. It was so good I read it anyway. Then I read Midsummer Night’s Dream, mainly because I had seen a cartoon version of it on TV with Mr. Magoo as Puck, and I wanted to experience the original text. Then in high school came comedies (As You Like It, The Tempest), tragedies (Hamlet, the Scottish play), and histories (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2). In college I even played Jacques in As You Like It, one of my favorite Shakespearean roles (and in many ways the precursor to another one of my favorite characters from literature, Eyeore). I managed to deliver one of the most famous lines ever written – “All the word’s a stage” – without any self-consciousness. I played my objective. I made it organic. (I also sometimes forgot what came after it).
Romeo and Juliet is actually not one of my personal favorite Shakespeare plays. As a writer, I can appreciate that it has essentially a perfect structure. The language is – of course – remarkable. The nuances of the characters make them remain – after all this time – incredibly convincing. And yet I still think the play is over-done to the point that so much of it has become too cliché to ever be exciting in performance.
Which is why the surprises in the Arden production are so exciting. I don’t want to write about all of them. If you haven’t seen this production yet, get over here and see for yourself – new interpretations of the supporting roles, the director’s smart use of cutting and splicing (And purists of the world remember: Shakespeare himself liked to revise his texts!)
One thing I can write about – or, rather, really, really want to write about – is our balcony scene. Prior to watching our production, the lingering memory in my mind was all hokey romantic platitudes and tight tights. Our Romeo’s style is a bit more hipster-chic (pretty sure I saw him shopping at Retrospect one day when he wasn’t too busy sulking), but that’s just scratching the surface of what surprised me in our production.
My pal Evan and his co-star Mahira help make clear the constant shifts in address Shakespeare has given them. Sometimes Romeo and Juliet are talking to each other. Sometimes they are talking to themselves. Sometimes they are talking to the audience. It’s the sort of thing that only works in theatre. In film or TV, such constant shifting is jarring. And it highlights, in my opinion, the intelligence of these two characters, who are, in essence, each involved in 3 separate, simultaneous conversations. It also highlights theatrically the awkwardness of youthful courtship, where you often regret on the inside what you just said to the other person outside. And I defy anyone to write in the comments section that they cannot relate to that.
In my own writing (of plays, not grants), I often explore the relationships characters can have simultaneously with each other, the audience, and with their own psyches. It helps make my plays funnier (I hope) and, though not more realistic, in my mind, more real. I was encouraged to see that Shakespeare was doing the same thing. Experienced former English Lit major that I am, I had forgotten that he put so much of my kinda writing in there.
It’s kind of like going for a long time without listening to the Beatles, then playing a song or two like “Love Me Do” and immediately remembering: “Oh, yeah. Every musician that came after is essentially just kidding, right?” Watching Evan and Mah play that great scene – so surprising, so fresh, and so timely – reminded me that for all us post-Shakespeare playwrights, no matter how good we may ever get, in many ways we’re kind of just kidding.
And kudos to Shakespeare, because even though I walk out of the Haas Stage still knowing that, his work remains truly inspiring.