By William Shakespeare
Directed by Brian LaDuca
Produced by Babes with Blades
At the Raven Theatre
Romeo and Juliet is not a simple play; to suppose that it is would be the most elementary mistake one could make concerning it.
– Frank Kermode
Babes with Blades is a novel if not revolutionary concept: it is an all-female theatre troupe, with a focus on stage combat. I say it is not revolutionary because, in a way, it simply flips what had been done for hundreds of years on its head; instead of an all-male cast, they have only women. Certainly laudable, the concept could bring interesting consequences to the plays they perform.
The reality, however, is something else: my notes from the show read like director’s notes from the first rehearsal, not a critic’s from opening night. This I lay at the feet of Brian LaDuca, who clearly has no earthly idea what he’s doing and has no business directing, especially something as difficult to execute as Shakespeare. The language was shaky, the speech too fast, the conception of the play poorly designed and executed. Shakespeare, more than any other playwright, guides us with his words and cadences – with the meter. I heard missed rhymes and misstressed syllables. If a director is unprepared for the rigors of a Shakespearean staging, he should not attempt one.
LaDuca also claims the setting to be the Liberal period in Italy before Mussolini came to power; why, then, did I hear modern music? Such a setting certainly did not strike me. There was a gun, but that seemed the extent of the new time: the costumes (some nice, some so-so) were rather anachronistic – or, rather, they were without time altogether. The set was gritty, and the broken clock-face making Juliet’s balcony was neat-looking, but it felt out-of-place. The troubles of the times that LaDuca claims would be pressing on the characters were utterly undealt with. That is to say: he really did nothing with the setting.
He also did not actually pay attention to the script: the masked ball had no masks; when Romeo says, “Arms, take your last embrace!” there was no embrace taken; when Juliet kills herself (“O happy dagger”), she does it with a gun, when there is a knife onstage. In fact, the entirety of the death scene is travesty: Juliet wakes up, just as Romeo, dying, falls on top of her; this gives her nowhere to move, nothing to do. The speech Juliet delivers, the most poignant and heartbreaking in the play, is cut, and, after a minute of her lying on her back, fidgeting, she shoots herself with the gun on Romeo’s belt – when he had a dagger that he could have easily brought over to her sleeping body, but instead left three feet away. One can play with the text. I have seen a Macbeth where, instead of the assassin shouting “Light!” when he sees Banquo, he walks up to him and asks if he wants a light for his cigarette. It can be done. It can be done well – brilliantly. This is not the way to do it. This is amateurish. This is base.
And yet I cannot lay all the blame on the director. Not all. He may have been the one with ill-conceived characterizations – Romeo far less melancholy in the beginning, far too skipping; Juliet being downright childlike and slow instead of naïve and clever; the Nurse being, well, not old (a simple requirement for the part is to be old enough, or at least present a character who is old enough, to have nursed Juliet as a babe) – but it was also the actors who, for the most part, were woefully untalented. There were exceptions, all of whom came from outside the company: Maggie Kettering gave the most complex performance of the night as Capulet; Eleanor Katz showed good potential, even though her Nurse was, indeed, far too young; and Ashley Fox, who makes her Chicago debut as Juliet, played the roll steadfastly. (Although I noticed that she was, at one point, unsure what to do when her mouth became encumbered with saliva, so I offer humble advice: do not be afraid of the Shakespearean spray; it must happen. The first two rows at the RSC are given plastic sheets to shield themselves from it.) They did as well as could be asked under the directorial circumstances.
But the circumstances are grim. I cannot count the number of times volume substituted for intensity. At least 12 post-intermission. It is a first-year mistake, shouting something when one could deliver much more emotion at a lower volume. Which is not to say one should never shout . . . but it is an easy way out for an actor, when something deeper could be presented to the audience. If anyone out there doubts me, I offer this performance as evidence. The cutting was bad: I mentioned the death scene above, but he also cut the apothecary scene, a very nice piece, while leaving in wordplay that is now only funny with footnotes. He also, when he combines the four servants in the opening scene to just one from each house, fails to change the plurals (“we, us”) to singulars (“I, me”). This would have been the definition of facility, of efficacy.
After all this, one may well be asking, did they do anything right? And I say, yes. One of the innovations of Romeo and Juliet is that the play starts off quite funny (although to say it starts off a comedy would not be right: it opens with a declaration of the death of the lovers, and there are dark tidings before the death of Mercutio – “These violent delights have violent ends, And in their triumph die”) and descends into misfortune. The humor is played up here, which I think is a good idea that heightens the tragedy to come. That said, the humor is played up to the extent that it is buffo, which does nothing for the piece.
All said, I cannot recommend seeing this production. The utter failure of direction makes it unwatchable. The actors who were good in this will be better in something else. But leave this butchery of the Bard be.
Reviewed on: 3.28.11
For full show information, go to the Romeo & Juliet TheatreinChicago page.
At Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL; call 773-904-0391 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com; tickets $20, $12 for students / seniors; performances Thursday – Saturday at 8:30, Sunday at 3:30; run time 2 hours 30 minutes; through April 30.