Monday, December 21, 2009

Romeo and Juliet

Photo/Paula Court

The Nature Theater of Oklahoma's name springs from Franz Kafka's Amerika, and boils down to this quote: "Anyone who wants to be an artist, step forward!" To that end, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper use found texts to speak to the unconscious beauty that lies beneath our stumbling everyday selves. Never mind that they often create these texts themselves, recording phone conversations with their friends and family (No Dice), capturing their own initial enthusiasms and streams-of-consciousness (Rambo Solo), or the poetry of random movements, like Poetics: a ballet brut. The point is that everything can be artistic, can have significance, and merit--which may be why their company so often chooses to perform in the overly enunciated, amateurishly flourished style of the dinner theater.

It's this sophisticated lowbrow that dominates their latest work, Romeo and Juliet--though relax, it's not just another adaptation. Instead, it's a series of eight interviews, performed as monologues by Anne Gridley and Robert M. Johanson, in which people were asked to explain the plot of Romeo and Juliet from start to finish. It's more insular than their other work, but at the same time, less so, because they didn't speak to academics; in fact, for the most part, none of the subjects had read or seen the play in years (which people in this community tend to forget is a normal thing). That is to say, it's still mighty accessible, and though it gets a bit repetitious, it resolves itself very nicely, as Anne and Robert perform their own interviews--this time, as a duet--, questioning the very nature of a love scene in a contemporary world. The result is a work of post-comedy, which is to say that most of its humor comes from self-awareness.

To that end, Peter Nigrini's exceedingly simple stage: a wood platform and a wood backdrop, on which the stage boards and a blue curtain have been painted. Also assisting: Elisabeth Conner, who plays neither Romeo nor Juliet, and yet makes two cameos which will remain an surprise so as to maximize their awkwardness. The foppish costumes: a slightly off-size pink dress for Ms. Gridley, with a flowered crown, and a frilly black shirt for Mr. Johanson, complete with brown tights and the Dutch-buckled shoes. And of course, dramatic re-enactment, which, true to the verbatim transcript, turns "ah" and "um," not to mention coughs and laughs, into uproarious interjections. (Imagine if Anna Deavore Smith's documentary theater were performed by sixth-graders [with no experience] and directed by a zero-budget Michael Bay.)

The humor of misquoted lines like "What light through yonder window speaks; it is the east and she is the west" and oddly accented words like "myun" for "moon" or talks of the famous "balconey" scene are as fleeting as a fiery footed steed. Thankfully, the fearless delivery from Nature Theater actors Gridley and Johanson is enough to sustain the slower moments as the interviews shift to the far more interesting commentaries each subject has on the significance of Romeo and Juliet. For one, 9/11 and Anna Nicole Smith are compared to the ecstatic, necessary tragedy of the Shakespearean play; another wryly wonders why we haven't learned the lesson that we need to let our children "spank the tank" and "fuck each other silly." It's less about the actual Romeo and Juliet than it is about our groupthink perception of them: "I think that if they had lived together, they probably would have had a divorce."

The question, ultimately, isn't really "Why was Shakespeare's language so compelling?" but rather "Why isn't our language that compelling?" The answer, according to these bawds, is that, put in the right context and listened to at the right time, it surely is: Step forward, artists. Speak.

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