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Romeo and Juliet

If there is one piece of art in the Western canon that defines "love at first sight," it is Romeo and Juliet. During the Elizabethan age, such a notion challenged the norm of arranged marriages designed to consolidate wealth and political alliances.

Leveraging the numerous ups and downs of his intimate relationships, "Shake-speare" (one of the pen names of Edward de Vere) wrote some of his most impassioned poetry for the star-crossed lovers at the heart of this tale of woe.

Lenne Klingaman as Juliet and Charles Pasternak as Romeo
Lenne Klingaman as Juliet
and Charles Pasternak as Romeo
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Where in de Vere's life might one find the kind of love he expresses here? The most obvious is his infatuation with Anne Vavasor, one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies in waiting. "The dark lady of the sonnets" served as a muse for an impassioned couple of years, until her pregnancy got both of them thrown in the Tower, eventually leading to a family feud.

In the Denver Center Theatre Company's current production, director Scott Wentworth delights us with his choice to set this much as it may have looked when produced at the original Globe Theatre (or previously at court), on a bare stage with two pillars, which has the effect of amplifying the characters and text, much as closing your eyes enhances a kiss. Given this straight-forward interpretation, the depth of talent in the ensemble, and voice and text coaching by Kathryn G. Mayes, the evening was filled with excellent elocution and scansion that rang true to character.

Wentworth also does wonders with cross-hatching time and place, presaging the climax by introducing the sarcophagi in the first scene and using them periodically throughout, to serve as the principle scenery, i.e., the balcony, a seat, a bed, etc. Other overlapping segues mix sorrow and elation, this world and the next, and more, bringing depth and dimension to the series of untimely events that magnify this tragedy.

Ensemble. En garde!
Ensemble. En garde!
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Accompanying these funerary objects, at intervals, are candles and lamps ("lanterns of the dead"), as well as the grim, hooded processioners that the playwright (de Vere) would have found in Venice at the time of the plague, in 1575, when he visited. Such reminders of death were common to medieval passion plays (e.g., Everyman); here, they are underscored by the poignant melancholy of period music designed by Craig Breitenbach (with composition by Rodolfo Ortega). All this is topped off by a lovely dance at the Capulet's, choreographed by Robert Davidson.

Adding to the verisimilitude are Christina Poddubiuk's sublime costumes and Geoffrey Kent's split-second fight choreography: the Montagues and the Capulets wear similar styles cut from subtly different cloth; swords flash; openings are quickly defended; suddenly, one swift thrust and a body and soul are separated. Among the many autobiographical elements in the script are the number of encounters between the Montagues and the Capulets, as well as the death toll and official interventions, which mirror real-life events between the de Vere and Vavasor clans in 1582. These battles were later recaptured in Thomas Edwardes' Narcissus (1595), in which he references, in the context of discussing the epic poem Venus and Adonis, an unspecified nobleman, with a "bewitching pen," who "should have been of our rhyme/the only object and the star."1

J. Todd Adams as Mercutio
J. Todd Adams as Mercutio
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Those familiar with this masterwork know that, until his death, it is Mercutio who dominates the action, and this fine production is no exception, with J. Todd Adams, in his DCTC debut, ruling the roost with sass and craft, egging on both his friend, Romeo (Charles Pasternak), and his foe, Tybalt (Matthew Simpson, brimming with vituperative invective).

Other than Lenne Klingaman as Juliet, who, at least until she is married, could pass for a very mature 14-year old heartbreaker, the cast is, naturally (given the acting demands), skewed older than the text evokes. Pasternak's Romeo enters much as his biographical alter ego, Hamlet, book in hand, dispensing riddles, alternately, to his buddies and his holy man, Friar Laurence, just as Hamlet does with Polonius, with "a method to his madness." But when it comes to wooing, Romeo is the younger incarnation of the playwright, not yet jaded by court politics and betrayal; and Pasternak delivers youthful passion, with a twist of precocious erudition, that matches Klingaman's girlish infatuation and heartfelt, poetic turn of phrase.

Lenne Klingaman as Juliet and Jeanne Paulsen as Nurse
Lenne Klingaman as Juliet
and Jeanne Paulsen as Nurse
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Where Juliet's and Romeo's kin are too full of antipathy for the other clan to aid the lovers, Friar Laurence (Sam Gregory) and Nurse (Jeanne Paulsen) come through in spades, even if their support is as star-crossed as their charges. With a twinkle in her eye, spinning off double entendre and lamentation with equal effortlessness, Paulsen adroitly navigates between Nurse's formal obeisance to Lady Capulet and her nursemaid's maternal devotion to Juliet, whom she breast fed and raised.

Sam Gregory as Friar Laurence
Sam Gregory as Friar Laurence
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Meanwhile Gregory deftly inhabits the multifaceted Friar Laurence, an autobiographical memorialization of two of de Vere's tutors:

1. Laurence Nowell, in cosmography (history, sociology, economics, geology, astronomy, liguistics, English, comparative literature, geography classics, and political science all in one). Nowell had access to the single most important Anglo-Saxon manuscript of all time. Sometime in 1563, when he was tutoring de Vere, Nowell signed his name in a volume of manuscripts containing the only known copy of Beowolf. Later, de Vere would use his knowledge of this text to change the ending of Hamlet, which follows the general story from the ancient Amleth manuscript (drawn from the same Scandanavian folklore as Beowolf), until Hamlet slays Claudius; then, the plot switches to Beowolf: it is Beowolf who fights the mortal duel with poison and swords; it is Beowulf who turns to his loyal comrade to recite a dying appeal to carry his name and cause forward; and it is Beowulf that ends with a royal succession brought on by an invading army.2

2. Sir Thomas Smith, a practictioner of the new empirical Paracelsian medicine, who had a knack for brewing up potions, which aided in a particularly difficult recovery of de Vere's first wife, Anne Cecil. Later, the Earl and the Countess' personal doctor, George Baker, another Paracelsian, dedicated two books to the couple, followed by surgeon John Hester, who dedicated another classic tract in Paracelsian medicine to de Vere.

Paracelsian medicine, championed by de Vere, was the alternative medicine of its day and was frowned upon by those whose reputations and egos rested upon the established dogma, the second-century Galenic theory of medicine that saw the body as a balance of humors. De Vere raised the controversy in All's Well that Ends Well, with Helena extolling Paraselsian medicine, which, in turn, heals the King of France when Galenic medicine fails. Paracelsian chemical distillations, called "simples," are used by Romeo (and Laertes in Hamlet). Even Caius (de Vere met the real life Doctor Caius as a young man at Cambridge), the old Galenist in The Merry Wives of Windsor, keeps simples that he would not "for all the world" leave behind.3

Charles Pasternak as Romeo and Lenne Klingaman as Juliet
Charles Pasternak as Romeo
and Lenne Klingaman as Juliet
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Wentworth also finds efficiencies in assigning the role of chorus to the Capulet's servant, Peter (the delightfully dry-witted Matt Zambrano), who sets the scene (Prologue) and later ties things up, borrowing what are normally Prince Escalus' words, as an Epilogue of sorts. Given that Peter is the one who unwittingly invites the Montague boys to the Capulet's party, one could argue that such a bridge role is fitting. On this occasion, in the final scene, it brings symmetry.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's Romeo and Juliet runs through February 24th. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

Footnotes:
1 Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 181.
2 Ibid, p.23
3 Ibid, p.74

 

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