For a guy who murders two men and drives a 13-year-old girl to suicide, Romeo sure gets good PR spin in history. Thanks to William Shakespeare and centuries of skewed interpretation, “Romeo” is now synonymous with “great lover.” But considering what the boy gets up to in Romeo & Juliet, he should be on the list of the Bard’s great villains alongside Iago and Richard III.
Inundated with Romeo & Juliets on local stages this year, including the pugnacious one currently running in Shakespeare Dallas’ outdoor production at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre (with another to come early next year at Dallas Theater Center), we’ve had time to study more closely the character who calls himself “fortune’s fool.” He’s no romantic hero. He’s a kid with zero impulse control. A Spencer Pratt-like brat who’s rude and over-entitled.
Consider this: Written around 1595 and first performed within a year or two, Romeo & Juliet came about during a time when famine was driving up food prices and starving the poor in England. An outbreak of plague hit London at the end of 1595, causing 17,000 deaths within a matter of months and the temporary closing of London theaters, including Shakespeare’s. Famished for food and entertainment, the 1,500 people who scraped two farthings together to see the first night of Romeo & Juliet around 1597 would have arrived with stomachs growling. And here’s what our Romeo says to his pals when he enters: “Where shall we dine?” Way to rub it in their pock-marked noses, jerk.
Pining for Rosaline, the girlfriend who’s just dumped his bratty ass because she doesn’t want to sleep with him, Romeo forgets all about her when he sets eyes on virginal Juliet, who is “not yet 14,” or so we’re told by her mother and her nurse. He kisses her at a party he’s crashed at her parents’ house on a Sunday evening, has sex with her by Tuesday and by Friday she’s dead. Before he kills himself, not so much out of grief but from the realization that his goose is cooked, Romeo has stabbed to death both Juliet’s cousin Tybalt and the man she was supposed to marry at 16, the very nice (and patient) Paris, who dies whispering “Juliet” as his last vow of true love. (He’s the one we should be sorry for, but for the last 400 years, nobody’s referred to a star-crossed loverboy as a “Paris.”)
Yes, a lot happened in Verona that week. Parties, disembowlings, deflowerings, poisonings, funerals.
A lot happens in Shakespeare Dallas’ production of the play, too. And all of it at max volume. Has director René Moreno had his hearing checked recently? He has the actors shouting for two hours and 35 minutes (long, even with cuts, or to quote from the play, “in a minute there are many days”). At the Saturday night performance reviewed (opening night had been rained out), the cast was already hoarse from pushing their voices. It’s so unnecessary, as they’re all wearing microphones. The level of electrified amplification is so high you can hear the actors breathing. Between lines, Romeo snorts louder than Darth Vader. During the sword-fighting scenes, the men grunt like animals with every thrust. Close your eyes and it’s a bad porn film soundtrack. (Fight choreography by Jeffrey Colangelo isn’t even Sharks and Jets believable.)
As Romeo & Juliets go — and please, theaters, let it go for a few years after this — the one at Shakespeare Dallas offers nothing thrilling or innovative (unless there’s a new movement forming called Yelling Shakespeare). Its leads are especially weak. Directed to bellow like a drill sergeant, actor Ricco Fajardo stomps around sawing the air as Romeo. As Juliet, Fiona Robberson shrieks like a banshee. Her poor tonsils must be bruised. She also makes Juliet a hysteric, throwing herself on the ground in tantrum mode. Fajardo has no oomph with her as Romeo. In his big emotional moments, he crumples into a fetal position. Damn, gravity is a bitch in Verona.
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Shakespeare’s poetry loses its seductive qualities when delivered with all the subtlety of sideline cheers, so it’s a pleasure to listen to veteran actors Amber Devlin as Juliet’s nurse and Jeff Swearingen as Romeo’s doomed pal Mercutio. Instead of roaring, they use well-placed vocal technique to let the speeches trip effortlessly off their tongues. They seem to be the only ones onstage who realize the microphones are working, and they’re both good comedians, which helps. Young actors Tex Patrello (a Capulet servant) and Doak Rapp (Romeo’s pal Balthasar) do nice work in smaller roles, and reasonably earnest acting, without so much bawling, comes from Ian Ferguson as the tardy-to-the-poisoning-party Friar Laurence.
The look of this production is too loud in other ways. Costumes by Claudia Stephens put the women in huge dresses with droopy sleeves (Juliet’s white frocks fall on her figure like layers of pillow cases) and the men are in tights, vests and gigantic codpieces. Mercutio’s crotch sports a sparkly black one Freddie Mercury would have coveted. Distracting. Scenic designer Robert Winn places the action on a bare stage against arches, a stairway and the requisite balcony from which Juliet howls “Romeo! Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” at deafening volume.
Somewhere in Pleasant Grove, a dude named Romeo looks up and answers, “Huh?”
Romeo & Juliet
continues through July 25 at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre, 1500 Tenison Parkway. Tickets $10-$12 at the gate or shakespearedallas.org. $10 donation requested for admission to Tuesday and Wednesday performances.