Warfare Art Thou, Romeo? Productions Reflecting A More Violent Political Climate

Classic drama has plenty to say about modern times. Sometimes the connections are made glaringly obvious by directors and designers. Other times there's a subtlety, an underlying sensation that creeps up on us.

That's what's been happening with "Romeo and Juliet," the ever-popular Shakespeare romance now running at Westport Country Playhouse through Nov. 19. It's a play that begins by talking about "rebellious subjects, enemies to peace" and how "civil blood makes civil hands unclean." When we see ourselves in it, we see ourselves as bloodier and more unclean than we used to.

"Well, it's a violent world," declares Mark Lamos, who's directing the Westport production. (On Nov. 12 the playhouse is holding a "Sunday Symposium" panel discussion on "Bringing the Bard to Life — Directing Shakespeare in the 21st Century.")

A month after Donald Trump was elected president, New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre revived "Other People's Money," a '90s off-Broadway hit that Trump had championed and whose title had become one of his campaign catchphrases.

Trump has been seen onstage a lot in Connecticut in the past year, though ours was not a state that he favored with many of his campaign rallies. Regional theaters embraced him as a new stock character in comedies.

You could find Trump (as impersonated, with orange hair and loud tie, by Andrew Long) in Darko Tresnjak's production of George Bernard Shaw's 1919 "Heartbreak House" at Hartford Stage in May. A month earlier, a different Trump doppleganger could be found in Connecticut Repertory Theatre's production of "Shrek the Musical." As the diminutive Lord Farquaad in the fairytale show, Mark Boyett wore a "Make Duloc Great Again" hat and yelled "Whoa, Kellyanne" when dismounting from his trusty hobbyhorse.

The most reported-upon theater Trump manifestation this year was in Trump's hometown of New York City at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.

When news spread that the Roman emperor being assassinated in the play bore a striking resemblance to a certain president of the United States, some detractors came to bury "Caesar," not to praise it.

There were audience outbursts and sponsor defections, but the show went on. (Trump/Caesar connections aren't confined to the stage. In mid-October, Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon called out Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell with thus: "They're just looking to find out who's going to be Brutus to your Julius Caesar." The analogy led CNN host Jake Tapper to openly wonder if Bannon had read to the end of Shakespeare's play.)

It's easy enough to see Trump's effect on Shakespeare plays that feature unpopular monarchs or emperors. But his presidency, and the hyper-partisan politics that begat it, are also affecting plays where no clear stand-in for Trump is present.

Again, take "Romeo and Juliet." In comparing recent productions of this immortal romantic tragedy to those from the 1990s, there's a completely different vibe. While the '90s productions stressed the romance between the title characters, the recent renditions seem more conscious of the violence swirling around them in Verona. The "ancient grudge" that divides "two households, both alike in dignity" is nearly as prominent as the "star-cross'd lovers" themselves.

This isn't just a vague sense. Most productions cut lines, or whole scenes, from "Romeo and Juliet" in hopes of attaining the mere "two hours' traffic of our stage" which the play's prologue promises but seldom delivers. In earlier eras, the scenes most often cut involved Paris, the wealthy count to whom Juliet is betrothed during the time that she has met and secretly married Romeo.

There have been productions of "Romeo and Juliet" in which Paris wasn't even mentioned, let alone portrayed. Nowadays, viewers are more accustomed to seeing the Romeo/Paris swordfight in Act 5, Scene 3, near the end of the play, in the churchyard where Juliet's body lies. It's a gratuitous battle that directors used to be happy not to bother with. Now it's another chance to show how modern culture is marked by incessant fighting.

Darko Tresnjak directed "Romeo and Juliet" at Hartford Stage in February of 2016. In a phone interview earlier this year, he agreed that we respond differently to the drama in different times, saying "I'm so glad that I did it, but at some point I might want to do it again."

"The feud aspect is fascinating, and quite tricky," he adds. "This play used to be like a ballet. Now people focus on the discord."

The rise of more violent, more divisive productions of "Romeo and Juliet" has mirrored a fresh interest in the musical "West Side Story," which resets Shakespeare's play as a street gang rumble in mid-20th century New York City. "West Side Story" has been staged in Storrs, Ivoryton, Danbury, New Canaan and many other places around the state over the past two summers.

Matthew Pugliese is the managing director of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Besides doing that Trump-twinged "Shrek" and a "West Side Story" last year, CT Rep also staged "Nuevo California," a prescient 1998 social drama about the building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Pugliese sees political themes as part of any university theater's mission to "provoke dialogue."

He has his own experience with "Romeo and Juliet," having once directed playwright Joe Calarco's modern four-actor revision of the play, "Shakespeare's R&J," for the Ivoryton Playhouse.

"It focused less on the violence but more on the forbidden element of the romance, and how that created additional strife and jealousy."

In 1995, Lamos directed a memorably bright "Romeo and Juliet" at Hartford Stage starring Calista Flockhart and Robert Petkoff as the young lovers, with Bill Camp as Mercutio. For this new production, Lamos "thought about moving it to some other sphere. I had a hip-hop idea for it, but then I felt I'd be co-opting something a younger director would do."

Lamos did "a lot of cutting" to the script; you won't see Paris coming to the tomb this time around. But the modern sense of anger and antagonism is still paramount.

"There's a feudal feeling to the town of Verona. It needs to be established that it's a world of male violence. The high-spirited vulgarity of the men is important to the play. It's important to establish that hotheadedness at the beginning.

"Shakespeare aligns sexuality with love and spirituality, then surrounds that with this violence. That roiling violence and sexuality is always present, including that virulent hatred that comes from the parents. Out of that comes the purity."

The panel for the "Bringing the Bard to Life" symposium on Nov. 12 includes Lamos, Oskar Eustis (who directed that Trumpian "Julius Caesar"), Evan Yionoulis (who did a gender-bending version of "Cymbeline" at Yale Rep last year) and Jack O'Brien (former artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, whose touring production of "The Sound of Music" happens to be at the Shubert in New Haven Nov. 7 to 11).

Dic Wheeler, who runs the community-conscious ARTFARM theater in Middletown, is considering doing "Romeo and Juliet" as the company's outdoor "Shakespeare in the Grove" production next summer. This past summer, ARTFARM's summer show was "Hamlet," which began with the title character spray-painting "NOT MY KING" on a wall to show his displeasure with his stepfather Claudius.

"It was not overt otherwise," Wheeler said in a recent phone interview. "No Trump wigs. But my initial take was to focus on how we make choices and take action when faced with an unjust government. I would tell the actors to 'inform your choices with what's going on today.'"

Wheeler notes that "after the election," the theater world's reaction to a Trump presidency could seem "kneejerk" and simplistic. Before deciding on "Hamlet," Wheeler himself originally considered doing "Richard III" before he "decided that was too simple a response, not complex enough for the world we're living in today. Hopefully this season we'll be seeing Shakespeare productions that are more nuanced and thoughtful."

ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare, directed by Mark Lamos, plays through Nov. 19 at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $70. A "Bringing the Bard to Life" symposium is Nov. 12 after the 3 p.m. matinee, and is free. A separate Sunday Symposium, "As Boundless as the Sea: The Genius of William Shakespeare," follows the 3 p.m. matinee on Nov. 5. 203-227-4177 and westportplayhouse.org

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