Verb’s Romeo and Juliet

L to R Sikhumbuzo Hlahleni as Romeo, Lieneke Matte as Juliet, and choreographer Joshua Peugh

3 Shakespeare nerds get into a car and drive 45 minutes to see a performance. That was us last Saturday as we picked up a friend and drove down to E. J. Thomas Hall in Akron to see Verb Ballets’ new Romeo and Juliet. Our friend was, until recently, a university English professor. Elsa and Vic were both English majors in undergraduate school and Elsa has a masters in English. So, inevitably, we discussed the play. What does the text require? Is there a right and wrong way to present it?

Of course, we agreed, it is a love story – which requires chemistry between the leads — but it takes place in a context of violence: feuding families, quarreling, insults, and intimidation. And the aftermath of violence: injury, death, mourning, and legal consequences.

It’s all there in the play, as if Shakespeare is at pains to tell us how pervasive and inescapable violence is, an easy case to make in late February of 2022 while Russia invades Ukraine. And that context of violence is a necessary ingredient in any staging of this play, we agreed, whether as drama or dance. But how to evoke this undercurrent of menace, given the difficulty of simulating violence live on stage?

The roads were clear and dry so we arrived at the theater in plenty of time to find our seats and read the program notes.

The stage was stripped of all but minimal wings that barely concealed the backstage areas. No cyclorama or painted backdrop depicted Renaissance Italy. No drops or front curtain to conceal scene changes.

The set by John Ebert was also a study in minimalism, just a very abstract collection of off-white panels and a box. “Ok,” we said. “It’s all in how the set gets used.” So we just sat there flipping through our program note and listening to recorded bird song over the sound system. “Is that the song of the nightingale or the lark?” we asked each other, referring to Act III Scene V when the lovers argue about whether it’s still night or breaking day. As Romeo says,

It was the lark, the herald of the morn, I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

The program note does not include a synopsis, which is probably ok for a play that’s so well known. But, if you slept through freshman English, here’s a quick tutorial. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTZDmaAf4SI)

The program note did have helpful captions under photographs of the dancers in costume and in character. We notice that all the characters are cast from among Verb’s youthful and extremely fit dancers. No former dancers of a certain age filling in for “character roles.” From the photos it appears that there will be no fat suit for Kate Webb as Juliet’s Nurse, no grey wigs and beards for the lords Capulet and Montague.

Looking at casting, we realized that the play has 9 roles for men and only 4 for women. This presents a problem for Verb which has 7 women and 7 men. To get around this problem, 2 of the men are double cast and 3 of the women are cast as Ensemble.

The music, we learn, will be Nathan Carterette playing his own solo piano arrangement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Based on that well known score, Carterette’s arrangement promises to be not only danceable, but tremendously evocative of character, setting, and emotion. 

At that point in our speculations, Nathan Carterette entered the pit to polite applause and sat down at the piano. He no sooner began to play than the stage was filled with every dancer in the cast, rapier in hand, thrusting and parrying back and forth across the stage. Benjamin Shepard and Hunter Hoffman as the aged Montague and Capulet swing ineffectually at each other with long swords until Isaac Hileman as Escalus, Prince of Verona, calls a halt. Freshman year in high school was a long time ago, but as this and subsequent scenes unfolded we could almost fill in the silences with Shakespeare’s text. Shakespeare has Escalus say,

If ever you disturb our streets again, Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.

The dancers exit, dragging their dead behind them. Costume design by Philista Marie Mills is just slightly askew from contemporary fashion; to our eyes, nothing off the rack and few if any concessions to Renaissance costume conventions.

The music immediately establishes a different mood for the next scene, a short duet between Bryan Andres Salinas as Benvolio and Sikhumbuzo Hlahleni as Romeo. We see them as playful friends. Not evident in this performance but important in Shakespeare’s text, this is the scene where Romeo explains that he’s depressed and distracted because he’s in love with Rosalind, who has sworn to a life of chastity.

As we English majors well know, Romeo’s unrequited longing for an unattainable woman is typical of the sonnets of Petrarch. Like the long swords wielded by the old men in the previous scene, those sonnets and sentiments belong to an earlier time and Shakespeare is making fun of them before he presents Romeo and Juliet’s love as an alternative.

In the next scene we see Lieneke Matte as Juliet, Kate Webb as her nurse, and Emily Dietz as Lady Capulet. The box, which turns out to be on rollers, has been brought somewhat downstage to serve as Juliet’s bed — or maybe her hope chest – and Nurse and Lady Capulet are folding Juliet’s clothes. The music for this scene is Juliet the Young Girl and it along with Matte’s dancing establishes Juliet-before-Romeo. She’s – yes – young and carefree, rather irresponsible, and doted on by her loving nurse. As the action on stage gives us to understand, Lady Capulet informs Juliet that the County Paris seeks her hand in marriage.

This night you shall behold him at our feast;

Read over the volume of young Paris’ face.

Can you like of Paris’ love?

Obedient girl that she is, Juliet agrees to look and see how she feels.

Meanwhile, Mercutio, Romeo, and Benvolio are planning to crash said feast. Romeo is still pining for Rosalind so he agrees to go in order to see her but Benvolio says that other beauties at the feast will far outshine her. Benjamin Shepard as Mercutio wears a big kilt and a military-looking vest with broad rainbow stripes. His extravagant appearance is matched by his exuberant dancing in this and other scenes. We don’t hear his Queen Mab speech or his many witty retorts but Shepard and choreographer Joshua L. Peugh have found a way to evoke Mercutio’s larger than life presence through dance.

The 3 friends arrive at the masked ball where we see a number of forces in play. Juliet and Paris join in a stately, formal dance flanked by Lord and Lady Capulet. The music, Dance of the Knights, evokes power and property, a marriage of advantage that will unite two estates.

Meanwhile, Romeo has seen Juliet and instantly fallen in love.

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!

In Shakespeare’s text the two meet and exchange flirtatious banter in what becomes a witty sonnet. In the ballet we see the two dancers standing very still, very close together as the party whirls around them.

Meanwhile, madcap Mercutio is the life of the party, leading abandoned, playful group call and response dances, and Carterette’s arrangement weaves in Prokofiev’s comic themes to support this antic mood. An impeccable classical dancer, Shepard usually projects a dignified presence onstage, but in this ballet his rendering of Mercutio shows what else he can do.

At the same time, Antonio Morillo’s Tybalt is growing more and more enraged at these party crashers and we see him complain to Lord Capulet. In Shakespeare’s text Capulet rebukes Tybalt with a firm “He shall be endur’d” which ends the matter for the time being. But in the ballet Peugh has Tybalt continue to complain until Lady Capulet gives him a stern talking to.

Earlier we wondered how to evoke an undercurrent of menace, given the difficulty of simulating violence live on stage. But in this scene, we feel the menace thanks to Morillo’s skillful development of his character. Then too, Morillo’s formidable physique and shaven head make him right for the role of the Capulets’ badass in residence.

In the next scene, we see Romeo and Juliet dance together in the garden beneath her window. The music evokes a sweet dawning uncompromised by the sour, ironic notes that Prokofiev adds so often to his other themes. To their great credit, Matte and Hlahleni’s faces and bodies are transfigured by what looks like genuine, ardent, mutual infatuation. We applaud Peugh and the Verb dancers for creating an effective love scene without lift after spectacular lift and other choreographic clichés.

The trouble that presents itself in this heady scene is more apparent in Shakespeare’s text. After frank and ardent declarations of love, it is Juliet who moves things along way, way too fast.

If thy bent of love be honorable

Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow…

Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite

And all my fortunes at thy feet I’ll lay

And follow thee my lord throughout the world.

They both know that they are from rival families, deadly enemies. And they just met that evening. Would not it have been better to get to know each other better, perhaps with a second meeting?

In the next scene, we see Benvolio, Mercutio, and Romeo in the town square. The music and dancing again tells us that they are bantering amiably. The nurse enters and with great purpose singles out Romeo. As she speaks with him, Mercutio kneels before Benvolio in a mocking parody of a marriage proposal. Before the Nurse departs, there is a bit of business in which Mercutio and Benvolio try but fail to trip her up. This is a close as this performance comes to depicting the disrespect that the Nurse suffers repeatedly in Shakespeare’s text. Webb recovers without losing her footing, glares at Mercutio, and departs, her dignity intact. So much to say that Peugh and Webb have reconceived the character of the Nurse.

In the next scene, we see Liu Mo as Friar Laurence in his cell. The box on rollers has become an altar. Romeo enters and pleads his case, asking Friar Laurence to marry him to Juliet. The Friar agrees. Juliet arrives. Friar Laurence dances with great fluidity as if to bestow a blessing, Romeo and Juliet kneel, Friar Laurence joins their hands together, and they stand and kiss.

After a brief interlude, we see Tybalt approach Benvolio and Mercutio in the town square. Tybalt and Mercutio cross swords, Romeo arrives and tries to part them, Tybalt stabs Mercutio under Romeo’s arm and flies.

Romeo: Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.

Mercutio: No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.

Tybalt comes back and Romeo, enraged, engages him and, somewhat unexpectedly, kills him. Benvolio excitedly tells Romeo that his life is forfeit for killing Tybalt, that he must flee Verona and Prince Escalus’ justice.

Even though we knew they were imminent, we found Mercutio’s and Tybalt’s deaths moving and credible. It was not a question of Hollywood stunt men or fake blood, but this production’s development of character and motivation.

Nurse and Lord and Lady Capulet arrive and mourn Tybalt. Romeo has just killed Juliet’s cousin. But if it seems that things can’t get much worse, just wait.

Again, we applaud Peugh and the Verb dancers for their restraint in this scene. Other choreographic versions of this scene have Lady Capulet virtually rend her garments and chew the scenery. But in this production, Peugh trusts the audience to understand the magnitude of what has just happened.

Next, in Shakespeare’s text, Nurse arrives in Juliet’s chamber to tell her that Tybalt is slain and Romeo banished. In her shock and grief, Juliet initially feels that Romeo has somehow deceived her but then she realizes that “Tybalt’s dead that would have slain my husband.”

In Peugh’s choreography we skip this short but essential scene and go directly to Romeo and Juliet’s wedding night. Incongruously, they greet each other as if Tybalt’s death never happened. Nevertheless, the scene that follows again shows that Peugh, Matte, and Hlahleni can create an effective love scene. We were a little surprised to see (some) clothes come off and (some) actual touching. But after they get into bed together – i.e. climb onto the box on rollers – the box evokes their ecstatic transport by zooming about upstage.

Whatever prurient interest we might have had in exactly how literal Matte and Hlahleni got during this scene, we were distracted because at the same time Paris and Lord and Lady Capulet were conferring downstage, apparently laying out the marriage contract and setting a date for the wedding. A lot happens fast in Romeo and Juliet and this production has found ways of moving things along even faster.

After Romeo and Juliet part, Peugh has changed the next scene from Shakespeare’s original but the cumulative effect is the same. The Nurse, then Lady Capulet, then Lord Capulet come in and tell Juliet that she is to marry Paris. To each of them Juliet says, “No.” Lord Capulet loses his temper, gives Juliet an ultimatum, and departs, leaving Juliet alone with her dilemma.

Juliet goes to Friar Laurence – the box is back in its place as the altar – and he produces the little vial.

Take thou this vial, being then in bed,

And this distilled liquor drink thou off;

When presently through all thy veins shall run

A cold and drowsy humor; for no pulse

Shall keep his native progress but surcease;

No warmth, no breath shall testify thou livest;

Perhaps you remember how Friar Laurence’s plan is supposed to work, what goes wrong, and the tragedy that actually unfolds. Again, as fast as Shakespeare’s story moves, Verb’s moves even faster with undiminished effect.

After Juliet drinks the contents of the vial, she sees a vision of Tybalt in an otherworldly light. Again, Shakespeare’s text is only slightly different. Without actually seeing a vision of Tybalt, Juliet worries:

How if, when I am laid into the tomb,

I wake before the time that Romeo

Come to redeem me? There’s a fearful point!

Shall I not then be stifled in the vault…

Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth,

Lies fest’ring in his shroud;

As it turns out, that’s not the worst that can happen.

When Juliet is discovered apparently dead on the morning of her wedding, Friar Laurence is there to run interference. Two hooded figures appear to carry Juliet to the family crypt.

Then, downstage, Benvolio arrives in Mantua to tell Romeo that Juliet is dead. Romeo immediately resolves to lie with her that night and presumably to take his own life. Meanwhile, upstage, mourners lay Juliet to rest in the Capulet family crypt. Again, one thing happens upstage while another occurs downstage, moving things along with great speed.

The scene at the crypt unfolds much the same as Shakespeare’s text. Romeo arrives at the crypt where Paris is mourning Juliet. From Paris’ point of view, Romeo has no right to be there so he draws his sword but Romeo quickly closes with Paris and stabs him with his dagger. Again, character and motivation make violence credible. Romeo lies down with Juliet and takes poison. Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo dead, and stabs herself. Friar Laurence arrives too late.

The 3 of us got back in the car agreeing that Joshua L. Peugh and the dancers of Verb Ballets had engaged with the substance of Shakespeare’s play and produced a highly successful performance that we’ll long remember.

Verb Ballets performed the world premiere of Romeo and Juliet on February 26, 2022.

Next for Verb, Anti/Gone at LaSalle Theatre in Cleveland, 4/8 & 9, 2022. For more info go to verbballets.org/performances.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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