Romeo and Juliet/Henry Faust | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Romeo and Juliet/Henry Faust 

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ROMEO AND JULIET

Folio Theatre Company

Not a hint of a concept lurks behind Folio Theatre Company's Romeo and Juliet. In what by today's standards amounts to a nontraditional production, Alec Wild has set the play in--yes!--its proper time and place. No directorial indulgences color or corrupt the lines--this love tragedy goes back to basics, which are all it needs. Find the feelings behind the words and the most obscure lines come back to life; lack them and the most accessible lines seem embalmed.

With no clash between language and costumes, Shakespeare's words stand even firmer: they're not intrusions into the present but the still- living tongue of a past era. And from a specific 15th-century grounding, the tragedy can expand to universal significance, illustrating how the young lovers' dangerous infatuation is consumed by its emotional opposite, the hatred of two proud families.

Performed on a severe set (mostly composed of the brick wall of Folio's storefront space) with only the (uncredited) costumes to establish the period, Wild's Romeo and Juliet is strongest when it plays as if, moment by moment, no one knows what's next. To achieve that refreshing sense of unpredictability the Folio players jettison the foreshadowing prologue and tighten the scenes. One happy omission is the fifth-act business in which the slow friar fails to deliver the note from Friar Lawrence to Romeo. Less excusable is the elimination of Romeo's parents, and thus of the reconciliation scene between Capulets and Montagues; and several actors--there are only nine in all--are forced to take double or triple roles, stretching themselves beyond their range.

Still, what fuels Shakespeare's eternally young script are the knife-edged passions, which we see in the play's street brawls, adolescent raillery, practical jokes, and the individual excesses of its characters: Paris's jealousy, Tybalt's rages, the fury of Juliet's father at a suddenly grown-up and rebellious daughter.

Of course the scariest of all these passions is the lightning love between Juliet and Romeo, a desire so ungovernable it carries the seeds of its own destruction. We like to believe that their passion is irresistible, that love makes nonnegotiable demands. But as Shakespeare saw Romeo and Juliet this is a tale of woe, a lesson embodied in Friar Lawrence's cautionary tale of the lovely flower that hides a poison. Today we dwell on the rhapsodic glory of two teenagers who die at their peak, never knowing life's compromises, but this romantic slant would have seemed strange to Shakespeare's audiences; for them children's disobedience to parents was enough to warrant tragic results.

Yet any good retelling has got to suggest the lovers' highly combustible ardor. Ian Christopher's baby-faced Romeo grows up fast: he shows us Romeo's panic as emotions and events rush faster than he can control them, making Romeo fight his feelings as much as unleash them. Individually the lines may not be interpreted for meaning and nuance, but Christopher does provide the elemental energy. (He also choreographed the fierce fights.) Heather Prete plays Juliet full out; she makes the character's impetuosity, petulance, summer-storm tantrums, and gushing love chatter seem unchanneled and spontaneous. Though she risks garbling lines to maintain her breakneck pace, Prete clearly conveys a 14-year-old who can't believe that any pain or joy she feels will ever end or that her brave new love can ever hurt her. Even from a safe distance her reckless willfulness is scary.

Perhaps it's wrong to expect the other parts to hold their own against the lovers' excess--but mostly they don't. Among the stronger supporting players are Kirk Sanders as a buoyant Benvolio, Jana Barber as a vaguely compassionate Lady Capulet, and Charles Constant as a benevolently ineffectual Friar Lawrence.

But Patrick New as Mercutio seems lost by the part's quicksilver wit, unable to trigger the laughs in his Queen Mab speech (or later) because he doesn't seem to see them. In another potentially comic part Paula Line, looking too young for the role, misses the nurse's leering vitality; she makes more of her final rueful capitulation to marriage with Paris.

HENRY FAUST

Circle Theatre

Henry Faust, another exercise in emotional extremes, is both basic and ambitious. Composed and performed by singer-teacher-conductor Gregory Sullivan Isaacs, this one-person three-act opera is based on Anna Swanwick's translation of the first part of Goethe's masterpiece. Employing only piano accompaniment (superbly shaped by Kevin Hinton) and an iron cot, a dresser, and an armchair as props, Isaacs's Henry Faust might seem a textbook minimalist opera except for the fact that there's little in his rich score that's minimal. Written in what Isaacs calls "refreshed tonality," this lush, supplely intense music serves the drama well. So does Isaacs, whose Faust (directed by Dennis Mae) captures in his dramatic and musical reactions the other characters--principally the devil Mephisto and Faust's lover/victim Gretchen--as well as the turmoil that engulfs him.

Isaacs's inexhaustible tenor easily ranges from the despairing agitato of Faust's opening agonies to the lyrical frenzy of his first glimpse of Gretchen to a hushed declaration of love as tender as we could wish of any serenade. Though the first act is weighed down by an abundance of dark-hued recitative, the six scenes build as inevitably as Goethe intended. Nothing that matters seems to have been left out.

Clad only in pajamas and varying looks of astonishment, Isaacs seems driven, working hard to make Faust's reactions to events as real as if the other characters were also onstage. For that very reason, despite Isaacs's attempts to suggest a larger story, Henry Faust could work just as well as a madman's fantasy, an isolated obsessive's attempt to turn a classic into his own personal history. Whatever, Isaacs's tour de force certainly has a future.

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