Sunday, July 16, 2017

Choosing Sides

The phrase, “choose your side” has many meanings and ramifications. When I learned yesterday, as an audience member at the outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet staged by Off-Road Shakespeare, that I would be choosing whose family I was rooting for— whose ‘side I was on’— I was surprised and even a little taken aback. Not only have I seen several full blown productions of this classic Shakespeare, but I acted in a University of Washington production of it (more than fifty years ago). When the director passed a hat with folded papers in it, I hoped I’d be a Capulet—biased, of course, by having played the part of Juliet’s nurse. But I pulled a piece of paper with MONTAGUE written on it and was told to gather with other Montague supporters in the wide circle of audience surrounding the players. So I did . . . and I will never regret it. Instead of seeing the world from Juliet's perspective, I got to see it from Romeo's.
Romeo and friends hanging out and bored

During the show, all the scenes at the Capulet household not having Romeo in them were played in another part of Red Square from where the Montague scenes were playing out. That meant I was seeing the play unfold from a bias. Of course, when there were scenes with family and/or friends of both families—we all came together. I didn’t hear a lot of the dialogue most familiar to me, but it made me pay attention in an entirely different way to the play. I’m not sure the hatred between the two families has ever struck me as this pervasive before. The hatred isn’t just about idle teenagers in Verona with raging hormones—it's a hatred rooted in generations of animosity.

What an amazing production it was! The sky was blue; the sun was bright; and the actors had the enormous Red Square at University of Washington for their stage. When Romeo was banished to Mantua, the audience supporting the Montagues followed Romeo along the brick walkway all the way to the picturesque Quadrangle at UW—the equivalent of several blocks—all the while being accompanied by melancholy and haunting guitar music as a guitarist and a box-beating-drummer walked with us.

The Balcony Scene setting
Guiding the audience was carefully and expertly carried out by banner carriers—crew members of the Off-Road Shakespeare Company—as efficiently as if they were tour guides leading disparate travelers to interesting sights in a city. Various parts of Red Square lent themselves beautifully to the narrative requirements, such as Friar Lawrence’s cell, which was a cranny below a stairway wall. It allowed both Capulet and Montague audience members to lean over to see and hear the conversations between Romeo and the Friar. And the balcony? It was fabulous!

Not only could I hear every word spoken by the competent actors, I was wowed by their dexterity. Most have learned several parts and don’t know which one they’ll play until character parts are drawn from a hat just before the show starts. Gender doesn’t matter; race doesn’t matter; yes, blind casting works! I was utterly enchanted by this amazing and free production.

Mourning of the four needless deaths
Of course, being in a public square, lots of people wandered by . . . some stopping, some staying, some asking what was happening. In the latter case, a business card announcing the endeavor was handed by a crew member (usually the family-banner carrier) without breaking character or talking.

At one point a Campus Police van skirted the players . . . and squealing seagulls occasionally did their best to obliterate the Bard’s words . . . but they didn’t. I heard it all and cried at the end. The pitiful tally of corpses at the conclusion of the play had a more devastating effect on me because of where they were--out in the open under a blue sky, additional testimony to the horrific loss of young life all because of hatred and misunderstanding. Choosing sides can be deadly.

But I am glad I chose to go to this particular play, pulled "Montague" from the hat, and had the opportunity to think about a well-worn play differently. 

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