Not past our dancing days yet: Sean Graney's fun and inventive "Romeo Juliet"

THEATER REVIEW: "Romeo Juliet" by Hypocrites in the Chopin Theatre ★★★

 Lindsey Gavel (left) and Tien Doman in "Romeo Juliet," staged in the basement at Chopin Theatre.

Lindsey Gavel (left) and Tien Doman in "Romeo Juliet," staged in the basement at Chopin Theatre. (May 25, 2012)

I've heard the perennially excellent question "What light through yonder window breaks?" on countless occasions. I have never heard it spoken by Juliet and never while sucking on an orange. Me, not her.

But Juliet is a girl with questions who always deserved more to say. And those succulent fruit were on sale at the Globe Theatre when William Shakespeare's young lovers first made their appearance. So there is a historic relationship. Anyway, oranges handed out by the cast are not the only light refreshment on offer at director Sean Graney's charming little show, which explores that famous Shakespearean tragedy of teenage amour in no more than 80 minutes. The evening begins with the audience ushered in to a little romantic cave filled with miniature lights and carved by the Hypocrites from the basement of the Chopin Theatre. Therein, one is served tea at long picnic tables that oblige you, for a few moments at least, to strike up a conversation with your fellow theatergoers.

Thence you are led by the actors into a little canvaslike structure — rather like a teenage girl's tented hideaway erected inside her bedroom, circa 1979, and filled with shag carpeting, a lava lamp and a hot-pink record player that can spin "Morning Has Broken" when the moment so demands. The song stylings of Phil Collins are on offer too, deftly timed to moments like the one where the nurse opines that all love ends in tragedy.

Audience members scrunch up on a long, circular bench as four actors do the play. By play, I mean a combination of the actual "Romeo and Juliet" text (the good bits) coupled with parts of Felice Romani's libretto for "I Capuleti e I Montecchi," coupled with various bits of modern language like "whoa!" or "I didn't follow that." The entire show is done on that shag carpet, stage combat and all, with various interesting double castings, including the combination of Tybalt and Juliet, both played with sensual zest by Lindsey Gavel, or the Nurse and Paris, both by Tien Doman.

Graney has no interest in fetishistic adherence to the original text — so purists be warned — but this piece ends up being rather more than a humorous deconstruction. There are some potent connections that emerge between Gavel and Walter Briggs, who plays Romeo as a kind of honest Midwesterner of limited intelligence. The outer frame of the show is kept deliberately vague — I think it could emerge with a little more definition — but one advantage of that is you are able to spin your own explanations in your head as you watch these four young people jumping around on the carpet. It feels to me rather like Juliet is mounting her own show, starring herself, and combining her traditional lovelorn role as an object of desire (who would want to give that up?) only with more post-feminist action and self-definition. It's notable that Graney begins his take with the line "Juliet, where are you?" spoken by the nurse but sounding like the cry of a mother who can't find her teenage daughter. Certainly, the women dominate the show, with Briggs' Romeo affecting a constant air of sincere confusion, while Zeke Sulkes makes genial trouble as a variety of the play's big personalities, only to be vanquished by the stellar tag-team of Gavel and Doman.

One is not bored here for a second — if you have a young person studying this play, you should take 'em to this and expand their mind on how a great story can inspire artists across the years — and there are a lot of clever staging ideas, such as the moment when that tea we've all been drinking takes on a different role, or when a single blade, hung in the air, stands in for a body, or when Paris, played by a woman, starts prattling on about how disobedience and the feminine do not belong together. He looks quite the fool.

As with many of Graney's creations, this one is gently self-aware, with the characters knowing they are in a drama and suggesting, on occasion, that they are doing this or that "because it is the next thing you do in a play." I'm all for a light touch, and the inclusion of the audience works beautifully here, but some of those moments have the whiff of unnecessary insecurity, and they pull you from the intensity of the grand passion of loss, of which Gavel and Briggs have considerable beginnings but not the full execution. If the contrast was sharpened between this conception, which truly is a delight, and the horrors and ecstasy of the actual play, then this show really would be something.

In program notes Graney observes that the actors were charged with designing the set by themselves. That would lead one to expect a couple of benches in a black void. But these performers create an entire fanciful world, a visual sculpture, really, that interacts with these clippings of the greatest love story ever told in an entertaining and enlightening way. It is a fine choice for a date: You will gain an intimate connection with your companion, should you have one. And if not? Well, "I can feel it, coming in the air tonight, oh Lord."

cjones5@tribune.com

 

When: Through July 1

Where: Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St.

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Tickets: $36 at 773-989-7352 and the-hypocrites.com

CHICAGO

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