William Shakespeares immortal tale of the star-crossed lovers speaks to modern hearts more than any other of his works.
It doesnt rely on witchcraft, as does Macbeth. It doesnt rely on the foibles of royalty, as does Hamlet. It doesnt rely on lengthy interior monologues, as does Richard III. It doesnt rely on mistaken identity, farcical cross-dressing or mythological creatures with fairy dust, as do any number of the Bards comedies.
Though written four centuries ago, Romeo and Juliets focus on youth, action, street gangs and sex is thoroughly contemporary, with a tightly written plot that moves at breakneck speed toward the pairs tragic, fatal date with destiny.
The only thing missing is a car chase -- although there are several swordfights.
Unlike the sprawling nature of many of Shakespeares plays -- originally intended to provide a full days entertainment -- Romeo and Juliet stays tightly focused on the two main characters. And like most modern works of literature, the protagonists are essentially alone -- surrounded by few frills and fewer subplots, their passion alienating them from the outside world as surely as any nameless antihero in any dark 20th century novel.
Most importantly, when you watch the play, always remember that the word passion does not mean what pop culture tells us it means.
It does not mean true love or great sex. It does not mean happily ever after.
Passion means suffering.
City Lights Theatre will present Romeo and Juliet in Forsyth Park this Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at 8 p.m. as part of the Savannah Shakespeare Festival.
Ten years ago, I had the honor of playing Romeo to Kelly Blackmarrs Juliet in the same festival, then held in Telfair Square. I remain awed to this day not only at the beauty of the plays language, but at the archetypal and addictive power of the narrative itself.
Some critics scoff at the play, saying the youthful main characters are poorly drawn caricatures. A few have gone so far as to suggest that some of the poetry in it is Shakespeares idea of a joke -- a parody of certain bad plays of the time.
But the truth is that most of the Bards works have some flaw -- Othello is too short, King Lear too long, Titus Andronicus too violent. In Romeo and Juliet, however, Shakespeare appears to have written that most elusive of masterpieces -- a play thats just as popular with performers as with the audience.
When I played Romeo back in the day, I was, um... lets just say, well out of my teens, about a decade older than the real Romeo would be. But ten years after his first staging of the classic, City Lights Artistic Director Jim Holt has chosen to put on what he calls an age-appropriate version of Romeo and Juliet, meaning that the actors are very close in age to the characters themselves. In fact, the two lead actors are currently students at the Savannah Arts Academy, a local public high school.
I interviewed the director and cast members Nick Holt (Romeo), Eve Butler (Juliet), John Keena (Mercutio) and stage combat expert Chris Soucy (theatre specialist for the Savannah Youth Theatre) April 29 at Jim Holts Ardsley Park home.
Connect Savannah: How old are our two lead actors here?
Eve Butler: Im 16 and Nicks 14, which is actually kind of the reverse of the characters ages. Romeo is supposed to be about 16, and Juliet is 13. Theres actually a line where the Nurse mentions that Juliet will turn 14 in a fortnight.
Connect Savannah: Jim, how did you come to the decision to go with a younger cast?
Jim Holt: Everyone who auditioned read for Romeo or Juliet, even those who came to try out for different parts or those who were obviously not young enough to play the roles. And it became very clear to me very quickly that these two not only knew what they were saying, but knew how best to say it.
Eve Butler: We were on pins and needles for four weeks wondering if we were even going to be in the show.
Jim Holt: Once we cast them, we looked around and saw all these other talented young people who had auditioned, and we said, Well, lets just use all of them. Thats sort of how we came to the decision to make this a more or less age-appropriate production. That also fits well with the whole gang nature of the play, with the Capulets and Montagues.
One thing you dont have to try and get out of these two is the youthful exuberance that comes from being young and in love. They really know what theyre doing. Theyre quick studies who learned their lines right away. They havent had their scripts in their hands at a single rehearsal.
Connect Savannah: Eve and Nick are a couple in real life. How long have you two been together?
Nick Holt: Almost eight months.
Connect Savannah: Is it easier or more difficult to act with your real-life partner?
Nick Holt: Weve been joking about how difficult its going to be to pretend like were in love.
Eve Butler: Its definitely easier. Its more comfortable.
Connect Savannah: Theres a school of thought that says a real-life couple shouldnt play opposite each other, precisely because the actors are too comfortable.
Eve Butler: Thats not a problem as long as you remember your stagecraft -- projecting so the audience can hear you, not leaning into each other too much, cheating out so everyone can see you. You have to make sure that its not too realistic, because realistic doesnt work in theatre.
Connect Savannah: Both of you have done a lot of shows, but nothing like this. Were you intimidated to have such key roles in such a well-known play?
Nick Holt: Oh, I definitely was. I flipped.
Eve Butler: I was so excited when I got the part. You know, I dont really feel like Juliet is carrying the show or anything like that. At first shes very passive. She does a lot of witnessing of other people, of other, more active characters. She never takes action until she goes to the Friar and says shes going to kill herself.
Connect Savannah: Whereas Romeo is the opposite, very impulsive.
Nick Holt: He messes up everything he touches. Romeo is always getting deeper into trouble, making things worse for himself.
Eve Butler: Theyre very complimentary as far as personalities go. In the balcony scene, Juliet has to tell him, wait a minute, this is moving too fast.
Connect Savannah: The play does move fast -- faster than any other Shakespeare play with the possible exception of Macbeth.
Nick Holt: The flow just knocked me over. At first you think this is going to be this drawn-out, long play. But it just goes bam-bam-bam, event-event-event, from the marrying through the confessing to Juliet pretending to be dead. Theres not a lot of fluff.
Eve Butler: The fast pace really helped me with the character.
Connect Savannah: How have each of you prepared for your roles?
Eve Butler: Ive been thinking a lot about the associations and emotions involved. The challenge with Juliet is that shes sort of this Everyman character, she comes from a very neutral place. You have to dig deep to find out whats going to motivate her to take action instead of reaction. In her first scene with the Nurse, she has like two lines. Thats what Juliet is.
Nick Holt: Romeo is sort of this womanizer. When you go to Italy, you can see Romeo on any street corner. Some guy with a tight shirt unbuttoned down to there, so his chest hair hangs out, with a medallion or something and wearing faded jeans, hitting on every girl he sees.
Connect Savannah: I must say thats a very MTV-generation take on the
Eve Butler: Well, like the line says, his pump is well-flowered. Basically its like she tells Romeo youre not getting any unless he marries her. If the whole thing about him killing her cousin hadnt come up, he probably would have lost interest and fallen in love with someone else.
Nick Holt: The odd thing is that his relationship with Juliet is more like love at fifteenth sight. I mean, before Juliet theres Rosaline, and some other girl and God knows how many before that.
Connect Savannah: How do you reconcile all the death in this show with the love story that it is?
Eve Butler: You know, a lot of people have a problem with this play, saying it promotes teen suicide. But the fact is that Romeo and Juliet dont commit suicide out of self-motivated reasons, theyre motivated by their love. Romeo doesnt kill himself because hes sad, he kills himself because he wants to be with Juliet.
Now we have these advances in health care and technology, and we look on death as something unnatural.
But at that time, death was looked on very differently. In the Renaissance people were dying right and left. Babies were dying all the time. Death was something people were much closer to. Even the Friar doesnt chide Juliet when she comes to him saying she wants to kill herself. At that time, death wasnt considered evil -- it was just considered moving on. And thats what Romeo and Juliet do.
Connect Savannah: At what point do your characters have an epiphany, where they decide to transcend their characters and risk everything for love?
Eve Butler: For Juliet its when she finds out Romeos been banished from the kingdom for killing her cousin. The whole shock of whats happened drives her into doing something about it.
Nick Holt: For Romeo that moment is when Mercutio dies. He realizes that all this is a lot more real than he thought. There can be a lot more involved than just falling in love and getting married. At that point, he says, oh, dash it all, and decides to stick with what hes got.
Eve Butler: Mercutio is so fiercely loyal to Romeo, yet disgusted with him as well. Hes a veteran -- hes seen horror, hes seen war. Some scholars have read into Mercutios Queen Mab speech that his wife died in childbirth. And theres his friend Romeo, whos in love with someone different every two weeks.
Connect Savannah: John, you have the plum role of Mercutio. You get some funny lines, a great speech and a great swordfight. Youre dead by the end of Act One, so you can kick back and relax while everybody else still has to get through Act Two.
John Keena: Yeah, while the rest of them keep whining and carrying on (laughs). Ive just sort of made myself into this dispirited but basically benevolent nobility. Mercutio is born into royalty, but hes the second son, so hes the soldier. Back then the first son got everything -- the money, the title, the land, everything. The second son went into the military, and the third son went into the clergy. And I guess the fourth and fifth sons were either killed or exiled. So he has these wounds on his soul from the war, but a very kind spirit.
Connect Savannah: Chris, you did the fight choreography for the first Romeo & Juliet here, as well as several other versions of the same play around the area. How will you keep the swordfights exciting and new for this weekend?
Chris Soucy: You always have to start with the actor and what theyre capable of doing physically. If you have an actor that says, Hey, I can do backflips, youre like, How about that -- so can Mercutio (laughs)! Once you do that, you fit the actors capabilities with the strengths and weaknesses of their characters. Every fight tells its own story.
For example, in the show that you were in, Mercutio was playful, whereas Tybalt was very stern. For this show, weve flipped that. I have Tybalt -- the cat -- playing and toying with Mercutio. His abilities are more fluid. Hes essentially trained in sport fencing. Mercutio has military training, so his style is more soldierly. So we have this juxtaposition of light heart, heavy blade, versus a man with a heavy heart and a light blade. Theyre evenly matched.
Connect Savannah: But Mercutio is always destined to lose.
Chris Soucy: In the past everyones accustomed to seeing the story of the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt portrayed as a tragic accident, one thats entirely dependent on Tybalts rage at Mercutio getting the better of him.
Connect Savannah: So much so that Tybalt is usually depicted as having to cheat to win.
Chris Soucy: Yes. But were telling it so that the way the fight ends up is a result of Mercutios inability to accept that Tybalt is the better fighter. Im portraying Mercutio as a heavy gambler, basically what wed call today a gambling addict. So instead of cutting his losses when he realizes he cant beat Tybalt, he does what gamblers do: He doubles the bet and keeps on raising the stakes.
The contest between Mercutio and Tybalt is very much based on the idea of fools rush in. You know, had you only tempered your passion with some logic and some reasoning, none of this would have happened. Weve created these scenarios where at every given point, someone has the opportunity to just say no, to walk away from the fight.
For example, when Tybalt gets the better of him the first time rapier against rapier, Mercutio raises the stakes by coming at him with a rapier and a dagger. Tybalt matches that and beats him again, so this time Mercutio comes after him with rapier/cloak. Then it escalates into rapier/rapier.
Connect Savannah: Thats ambitious.
Chris Soucy: Well, you have to break up each fight into small, manageable phrases. Theres a difference between violence and action. If you just pile violence on top of violence, thats boring. You have to gradually escalate action into violence. w
City Lights Theatre performs William Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Forsyth Park, with performances beginning at 8 p.m. and preshow entertainment beginning around 6:30 p.m.
In-show signing for the hearing-impaired will be offered at Saturday nights performance.
Bio: A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series...A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series.more