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Columbine by any other name: That’s PJ Paparelli’s take on Romeo and Juliet, and it’s an approach that reminds you forcefully—perhaps too forcefully, sometimes, but never less than arrestingly—that Shakespeare’s first great tragedy is, after all, a close-in chronicle of havoc and heartbreak among a clutch of cliquish, often savagely cruel teenagers who live with nerves perilously close to the skin, who fatally can’t see any farther into the future than a Bush-administration policy wonk. Questions about true love and its less-than-smooth course take a back seat to such timeless teen issues as communication, impetuosity, and parents who can’t possibly understand.
The adolescent-angst angle in this intelligently stylish production apparently grew partly out of Paparelli’s work on a show specifically concerned with the Colorado school shootings, but it’s not an arbitrarily imposed concept. Listen carefully to the text—which comes vividly to life here in the hands of a cast that includes an impressive number of D.C. Shakespeare stalwarts—and you’ll find yourself discovering emphases you might have missed before. It’s the author, not the director, who makes Romeo’s first big speech an aria about a bunch of impossible paradoxes, and Paparelli takes him at his word. Graham Hamilton’s delivery skips the usual irony for a testy confusion that escalates to near-breathless frustration; he’s a sensitive youth, but a callow, hurried one, and to him, as to every pubescent hothead, every obstacle seems an outrage.
It’s Shakespeare, too, who has Romeo’s father confess at the outset that he’s tried and failed to get his moody son to talk about what’s troubling him: “Black and portentous must this humour prove, unless good counsel may the cause remove,” John Lescault’s sad, dignified old Montague warns. Later, when Edward Gero’s marvelously human Friar Laurence talks the freshly banished Romeo down from the ledge of hysteria and suicide, his lines include an anxious echo of that caution. He reminds Romeo that he might have been executed rather than exiled for killing Gene Gillette’s snarling bully of a Tybalt: “The law that threatened death becomes thy friend…But like a misbehaved and sullen wench, thou pouts upon thy fortune and thy love. Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.” When he’s done, Nancy Robinette’s boisterous, scattered peasant of a Nurse grows still long enough for a relieved breath and a quiet, fervent word of approbation—and the word she chooses closes the loop on the thought that began with Montague: “O Lord, I could have stay’d here all the night to hear good counsel.”
Robinette is every bit as engaged with Nicole Lowrance’s Juliet, who swings from girlish rapture to surprising resolve to coltish panic as events get more complicated—you’ve heard the lines that establish her as a few weeks shy of 14, but they’ve never sounded as believable—and it becomes clearer and clearer that what Paparelli hears in Shakespeare’s liquid lines isn’t the adult obliviousness or the aristocratic unconcern for youthful feelings that so many productions present. These are people deeply attached to, and deeply fearful for, their headstrong young charges, people who try hard and try repeatedly to steer the central twosome through a situation that needn’t be as impossible as it seems. Granted, Montague remains an underwritten character, and granted, Andrew Long and Julie-Ann Elliot make chilly, autocratic Capulets until grief remakes them. Never, though, has Laurence’s failure seemed so terrible—for him, as much as for anyone—and never has the Nurse seemed so maternal, so grave, so ruefully wise.
Shakespeare’s thoughts keep turning, too, to the idea of rashness, and again Paparelli proves he’s listening closely. “Haste” is the word at which Hamilton’s still-giddy Romeo, come to arrange his speedy secret marriage, accidentally cuts himself on the knife Friar Laurence keeps hidden in his cell. And haste and heedless passion are what Laurence is forced to counsel against a few scenes later, when the two wound-up lovers come to be wed: “These violent delights have violent ends,” he warns. “Love moderately…Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.”
The Folger production is full of such graceful exegeses—a well-placed balcony-scene sound cue introduces the idea of the lark whose song cuts short the wedding-night rendezvous a few scenes later, for instance, underscoring the two scenes’ structural similarities. A wordless bit of staging brings crystal clarity to Capulet’s usually puzzling reversal on the question of Juliet’s marriage to Paris; here, it’s a blatantly political move aimed at currying favor with Craig Wallace’s forbiddingly angry prince. Don’t think this is a purely cerebral exercise, though. Strikingly stripped-down, with a carefully pared script and a stark visual palette of black and white and red, the production moves as swiftly and plays as strongly as any film dramatization of a real-life tragedy—whose style Paparelli means to evoke, at least to judge from the projected title cards that introduce each scene: “Day 1: Sunday Morning,” and so on. The company finds and underlines as many smutty jokes as literary devices, too: Romeo’s banter with the boys, especially Michael Urie’s manic, almost crystal-methy Mercutio, has never seemed quite as locker-roomish—and if it can be a little tiresome, it’s nonetheless another reminder that the kids at the play’s center are, well, kids.
There’s a line, as it happens, in Tea and Sympathy—now being produced, as it happens, by the American Century Theater—in which a dryly amused faculty wife ponders the hormonal, high-strung prep-school boys who keep noticing her figure. “This,” she says of that play’s 17-year-old tragic hero, “is the age Romeo should be played. You’d believe him.” Paparelli may not have noticed that line or remembered the woman who speaks it, but his brutally beautiful Romeo proves her right.
Paata Tsikurishvili is another director who’s gifted at taking familiar stories and finding startling, visually expressive ways to make them fresh—the Synetic Theater’s Salomé, to name just one—but for his latest project he started not with a text but with an idea: Bohemians is an all but wordless survey of human hubris and error, a sinuous movement piece that starts with a hypnotic account of the Fall and tracks our sorry story right up to the present with a funny-poignant sequence about cloning.
Actually, it starts a bit before the Fall, with a mass of black-clad dancers making like molecules in some primordial soup as someone makes moody noises on a cello. Pizzicato strings strike, fingers flutter like electrical discharges, and the writhing, vibrating bits of matter have coalesced into something that divides, in turn, into two. Individuation, gender, partnership, offspring—and soon enough a black-masked figure insinuating himself serpentlike into the scene, proffering an apple that glitters a seductive gold.
If you’re wondering why it sounds more like modern dance than theater, you’re probably not wondering alone—but then the Synetic style has always been movement-based, and fans of Paata and Paata’s actress-choreographer wife, Irina Tsikurishvili, won’t feel too lost. If some of the philosophical or physical gestures that constitute Bohemians’ 90-ish minutes will strike the jaundiced eye as pat or passé, it’s still an inventive and vigorous exercise, and the seven Syneticians involved throw themselves into it with enough energy and conviction to make it fun.
And moving, at least occasionally: Standout moments include a particularly lyrical passage in the tale of Cain and Abel, in which a healthy harvest, a blighted crop, a slaughtered goat, and a sacrificial flame are all evoked by graceful, economic movements of hand or arm or body. A later sequence retells the Tower of Babel story (only here do words briefly augment the idiosyncratic music that underscores the entire business), and later still a witty if perhaps overlong section, “The Age of Kings,” plays variations on themes of power—power lusted for, power abused, power as plaything, power lost.
It’s an ensemble show, to be sure, but Synetic regular Greg Marzullo gets a little more stage time than the others, playing Cain, the Tempter, and other key figures with an impressive fluidity and strength. Irina Tsikurishvili, always a figure of immense presence and poise, is the other standout.
Ultimately, in fact, the performances are what keep Bohemians from what might, in less devoted and skillful hands, read like a trite little treatise on human nature. The evening ends with a suggestion that there might be a little hope if, the next time it’s offered, we can manage to take a pass on that apple. What it really holds out, though, is the simple gift of unabashed, uninhibited art.CP