Monday, August 2, 2010

Clown Romeo and Juliet

The title is less than mellifluous, but the review was titled Die Laughing and the price was right - $8 - so G'ma and Chicago Gal and I decided to give it a whirl.  We are glad that we did.

The theater keeps a low profile; we had to drive past it twice before we noticed it.  And it's not a small building.  It was right where the website said it would be, across from the parking lot the county is finally allowing them to use, but the signage is unlit and maybe we were distracted by the crowd outside the neighboring tattoo parlor or the drizzling rain but in any event finding it was an adventure.  I solved the problem by noticing little white Christmas lights outlining a doorway in the general location we'd established for the venue, and then I looked up.  Painted on the wall was our destination : Beowulf Alley.

Now, as far as we could tell, there was no alley of any name or description anywhere near or around the theater.  I've read Beowulf a few times and I don't remember an alley playing a prominent part in the tale.  I'm unable to conjure a connection between Old English and modern day Tucson, but there we were, rolling into the lobby, looking for Grendel.... or at least their Late Night Theater.  Earlier in the week, the volunteer who answered the phone that we arrive about 15 minutes before showtime, and that she'd reserve front row seats for G'ma and her walker (which really needs a name, don't you think?).

So that's what we did.  The lobby was staffed by a very friendly young man standing behind the concession counter.  He sold tickets as well as sodas, and was delighted to exchange my ten $1 bills for "an upgrade" to a single sawbuck.  We accepted his offer of seats on the couch, and G'ma took her 8pm pills while Chicago Gal and I watched the world go by.

We were interrupted by another lovely young person who escorted us to our seats.  They didn't need to send us a chaperone; we'd have found them ourselves easily enough.  But this gentle 20-something woman led us slowly, carefully, kindly and thoughtfully to the front row, smiling all the way as G'ma apologized for her lack of speed.  "No problem.  No problem at all."  The other patrons were equally pleasant, smiling at us as they waited, patiently, without pushing or complaining, as G'ma made her way into the auditorium.  There are many reasons to like living in Tucson; this is one of them.  There are many reasons to enjoy traveling with G'ma; this is one of those, too.

The auditorium and its surroundings were plush and luscious but not over-done.  Comfy chairs with padded armrests and professional lighting were the only upscale features.  The stage is an upside-down raised garden, painted two-by-eights and a plywood floor.  The set consisted of a small piece of unpainted fencing, the kind you buy on sale at Home Depot, set atop a riser toward the back of the stage.  There was also a faux rosebush.  Nothing else.  For $8, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.

photo by Amber Roberts
There was no lack of things to look at, though.  The actors wore clown make-up, clown shoes, clown wigs and clown hats.  Their costumes were characters in and of themselves.  Juliet in her hot-pink-with-white-polka-dots rubber rain boots, Romeo in gigantic red bulbous-toed slippers, The Nurse in sexy black leather high heeled boots - they all said more about the inner lives of their characters than any costume I've ever noticed before.

I've never paid attention to anything more than the antics of clowns before last night; from now on I'm making it a priority to notice their make-up, too.  Every character was different, unusual, evocative and, by the end of the evening, just a little sweaty and drippy.  There were pies being thrown and they wreaked havoc with the painted faces but by that time we were having too much fun to be bothered.  The Nurse's mouth was half red/half black and neatly divided into quarters.  And is the nurse really as loving as her words profess?  Perhaps, sometimes, out of one quarter of her mouth.  Like I said, Amber Roberts's costumes were amazing.

Honestly, I think scenery would have detracted from the wonderfulness of it all.

Harpo Marx made an appearance as Mercutio, and he was hysterical.  Somebody needs to buy Evan Engle a better horn, though he did pretty well with the defective device he had on stage Friday night.  Giving him Benvolio's description of the beautiful women Romeo will meet at the party that evening was a stroke of genius.  His pantomimed outlines of the wonders they will perceive was every bit as eloquent as the words Shakespeare wrote..... well, maybe there's a bit of hyperbole there, but not much.  He advanced the story and made us laugh.  Perfect.

And that was the moment I realized we were the groundlings, the uneducated masses there for the pratfalls and the death throes.  The classical allusions were not intended for our ears.  It didn't matter if no one in the audience had read the original incarnation.  We were enjoying the performance and laughing at the rubber chicken.

Furthering the over-educated interpretation that this post seems to be trending toward, this drama unfolds in Dante's Italy, a place where rival family factions routinely drew swords against one another.  In the streets.  In the middle of the day. Over such trifles as a White Guelph kid falling for a Ghibelline daughter.  Suddenly, my studies were coming into real world use.  These kids really were putting themselves and their families at risk, all for what passes for love at 14.

We were never allowed to forget that this is a story about disobedient teenagers.  They were brats, they acted like brats, they thought like brats, and they were treated like brats.  The kids in the audience loved it, and so did the adults.  Balloon sword fights, air horns, the occasional lapse into modern slang.... there was never a dull moment.  Perhaps Romeo could have articulated his lines with a little more clarity but, in answer to G'ma's "Can you understand everything they say?"  I was forced to repeat what I've said to everyone who has ever asked me this question in a similiar situation:  "Of course not, it's Shakespeare."

Julie Peterson's script (which, according to the program was further ruined by Josh Parra and Michael Fenlason) is a true gem.  I'm going to leave you with one example.  Even if you've never seen or read the play, you probably know this scene, when Romeo, lurking in the brambles beneath her window, first espies his love:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
There was a sense in the auditorium that the audience was familiar with it, too..... kind of a shared, sighed oh, yeah.... as we settled in for something familiar.

Shakespeare's Romeo goes on to declaim that 
 It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!
As best we could hear (like I said, Romeo had a tendency to mumble) we were treated to
It is the Yeast, and Juliet is the cruller..... and there are crumbs......
as our young hero, red nose and rag mop hair askew and dotted with the remains of a non-fat whipped cream pie facial, wiped invisible pastry dust from his chest.  The audience roared.... at the sight, at the words, at the cannibalization of an iconic phrase.  We were really seeing Shakespeare.

It was a far cry from what was presented at the Globe at the end of the 16th century.  Or maybe not all that far. 

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