Romeo and Juliet

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
—Prologue, 1-6
Dante Rossi as Romeo and Madison Hart as Juliet
Dante Rossi as Romeo and Madison Hart as Juliet
Photo: Gabe Koskinen
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.

In director Christopher DuVal's impressive version, now running at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, we feel the magic moment when the two star-cross'd lovers first gaze upon each other from across the room and through the crowd at the Capulet's party, and in the famous balcony scene that follows.

The dynamics of DuVal's staging leverages the full range of the playwright's poetic and dramatic fireworks, as Romeo (Dante Rossi) and Juliet (Madison Hart) are so intensely attracted, they cannot break away without returning again moments later. Rossi and Hart's magnetism and heartfelt emotional investment is palpable, and coupled with the ambiance of the outdoor Mary Rippon Theatre—on a moonlit, occasionally sprinkling, Colorado night—make for a transcendant experience.

The next morning, Romeo goes to Friar Laurence's cell:

Friar Laurence: Be plain, good son, and homely in thy drift;
Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift.

Romeo: Then plainly know my heart's dear love is set 
On the fair daughter of rich Capulet: 
As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine; 
And all combined, save what thou must combine
By holy marriage: when and where and how 
We met, we woo'd and made exchange of vow, 
I'll tell thee as we pass; but this I pray, 
That thou consent to marry us to-day.

Friar Laurence: Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear, 
So soon forsaken? young men's love then lies 
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes. 
Jesu Maria, what a deal of brine 
Hath wash'd thy sallow cheeks for Rosaline!
How much salt water thrown away in waste, 
To season love, that of it doth not taste! 
The sun not yet thy sighs from heaven clears, 
Thy old groans ring yet in my ancient ears; 
Lo, here upon thy cheek the stain doth sit
Of an old tear that is not wash'd off yet: 
If e'er thou wast thyself and these woes thine, 
Thou and these woes were all for Rosaline: 
And art thou changed? pronounce this sentence then, 
Women may fall, when there's no strength in men.

Romeo: Thou chid'st me oft for loving Rosaline.

Friar Laurence: For doting, not for loving, pupil mine.

Romeo: And bad'st me bury love.

Friar Laurence: Not in a grave,
To lay one in, another out to have.

Romeo: I pray thee, chide not; she whom I love now 
Doth grace for grace and love for love allow; 
The other did not so.

Friar Laurence: O, she knew well 
Thy love did read by rote and could not spell.
But come, young waverer, come, go with me, 
In one respect I'll thy assistant be; 
For this alliance may so happy prove, 
To turn your households' rancour to pure love.

Romeo: O, let us hence; I stand on sudden haste.
—II, iii, 1115-1155

Anne Penner as Mercutio
Anne Penner as Mercutio
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
This switch in Romeo's romantic attachments and the ensuing love affair and clan warfare mirrors real life events for the playwright, Edward de Vere who, on suspicion that his wife was unfaithful (the subject of five plays), took up with one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, from which a pregnancy resulted (this is mentioned by Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing), causing Elizabeth to put them both in the Tower of London ("banishment"). All this was followed by a series of street battles between the de Vere and Vavasor clans in 1582, the exact number of which and the death toll is literally repeated in the play.1

(Foreground: left to right) Rodney Lizcano as County Paris, Jessica Robblee as Benvolio, Marco Robinson as Tybalt, and Rakeem Lawrence as Gregory
(Foreground: L to R) Rodney Lizcano as County Paris, Jessica Robblee as Benvolio,
Marco Robinson as Tybalt, and Rakeem Lawrence as Gregory
Photo: Gabe Koskinen
The principals in the street fights—namely, Tybalt (Marco Robinson), Mercutio (Anne Penner), and Benvolio (Jessica Robblee)—keep the young-male testosterone-infused antagonisms rolling. Penner and Robblee are a gas as saucy boys, tossing off sexual innuendos and personal barbs, while Robinson's intensity sends shudders down the spine. The fight scenes, also staged by DuVal, are epic!

Madison Hart as Juliet and Gareth Saxe as Friar Laurence
Madison Hart as Juliet
and Gareth Saxe as Friar Laurence
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Meanwhile, Gareth Saxe is sublime as 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.3

Emma Messenger as Nurse
Emma Messenger as Nurse
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Given the officiousness of her parents, Juliet takes refuge in her Nurse (Emma Messenger), who breastfed her and remains her closest confidant, go-between, and defender—at times, funny, combative, and poignant: the broad arc handled with aplomb by Messenger.

And what would the tragedy be without the enmity of the Montagues and Capulets? Warren Sherill's stoic and immoveable Montague facing the combative Capulets (Robert Sicular and Mare Trevathan) underscores the on-going animosities, which are further amplified by Jason Ducat's atmospheric sound design.

The Capulet crypt.
The Capulet crypt
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Against the background of young lovers star-crossed by the hostilities between their families, Romeo and Julet provides an elegant reminder of the playwright's larger point that is generally lost in the personal tragedies of those closest to the action: The story is not only an argument against arranged marriages, it is also a feminist's portrait of Juliet's struggle to break free from her society's treatment of women, a theme we see throughout the canon. Rodney Lizcano's regal, possessive streak, with a flare of lust, as Paris, underscores Juliet's dread that she already has for her father, and prompts her to try anything, including Friar Laurence's potion (the empty bottle of which he stealthily removes [kudos for this detail by DuVal and Saxe], when called to her "deathbed").

The Colorado Shakespeare Fesitval's presentation of Romeo and Juliet, runs in repertory with Twelfth Night and As You Like It through August 10th. For tickets:

Bob Bows

1 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." Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 181.
2 Ibid, p.23.
3 Ibid, p.74. 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 also used by Romeo, as well as 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.

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