"Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare"
Choreography by Mark Morris
Mark Morris Dance Group
Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
July 4, 2008
by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2008 Susan Reiter
It was certainly not the most likely venture for Mark Morris to undertake. A complete "Romeo and Juliet" set to the Prokofiev score is generally found in the repertory of large ballet companies, served up to audiences eager for drama and three-act lavishness. But Morris has certainly provided us with vivid dance-dramas in the past, and with "The Hard Nut" proved he could meet a beloved ballet score on his own vivid terms. He has always gone in the directions where his musical interests lead him, and the recently recovered 1935 version of Prokofiev's score -- the composer's original conception, before political censors, recalcitrant dancers and presumptuous ballet company functionaries imposed changes on it -- captured Morris' interest. With the admirable support of Bard Summerscape (the annual summer festival held at this enlightened, arts-oriented campus), he was able deliver a "Romeo and Juliet" free of bombast and excess. This is a more intimate Verona where we can sense the full fabric of the society, one where robust earthiness prevails and the family feuds are embedded in the genes and surface with instinctual spontaneity, not just on musical cues.
The production is elegant but simple, with a unit set (by Allen Moyer) that featured pale wood panels composed of rows of squares, set on slats along the sides and rear of the stage. Miniature houses are added for the scenes set in the town square, and pieces of furniture (the Friar's desk, the nuptial bed) appear as needed. A geometrically patterned half-curtain is lowered briefly between scenes to allow for the necessary set changes. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are particularly beautiful in palette and design. They evoke the Renaissance but are light in touch. The women's soft, full skirts swirl with a life of their own; the men's costumes feature flared tunics and create the effect of thigh-high boots over their tights. Caps and other clever head gear suggest both the period but the men's overall look also can make them appear timeless -- restless, hot-tempered toughs from any era.
The American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its music director (and Bard College's president) Loen Botstein was in the pit, playing with bracing involvement once it got past an unsuualy lugubrious reading of the overture. The musical textures were heard with bracing clarity within the elegant but relatively intimate Fisher Center.
Morris follows both Shakespeare's text and the score's demands with accuracy and respect, yet finds ample opportunity to put an individual stamp on the familiar characters and situations. Though the public scenes are necessarily more intimate in scale than one would find in other versions (Morris' company of 18 is amplified by six extra dancers, as well as four company "alumni" returning to portray the lovers' parents), he ingeniously creates a living, breathing texture. Paris, for instance, is not just a bland cardboard gentleman who appears to be introduced to Juliet and partner her at the ball. We see him threading through the outdoor scenes, more elegantly dressed than most and bearing himself with a sense of entitlement. He is, after all, a kinsman to the Prince, and thus well-connected. When the Prince is himself passing through the square, Paris is often close by, and at one point they share a whispered confidence.
Juliet's nurse, too, has a full, lively existence outside of the Capulet home and beyond her assigned scene with the letter for Romeo. She bounds through the town square often, joining the other women, delighting in what's going on around her -- a nimble, youthful woman who clearly enjoys life. Morris has opted to include the character of Peter, the Capulet servant who attends the nurse, and the two of them have such a vivid relationship -- he's not only there to carry her fan and be ordered around -- that he also seems to be her close companion.
Of course, it is the eponymous duo around whom everything revolves, and this first of two alternating casts featured the glowing, expansive Rita Donahue and the innately poetic, charmingly boyish David Leventhal as the lovers. Both conveyed innocence without a hint of preciousness. These two are eager to discover life and all it has to offer, just beginning to open themselves to the world as it started to close in on them with its rules and proprieties. Morris gives them a great deal of circling, bending unfurling movement, to which Donohue brings a rich, juicy integrity and which Leventhal imbues with both ardent intensity and the gentleness of a sigh.
Advance articles emphasized that Morris had studied, and had his dancers read about, specific hand gestures that were used in Italy at the time and their meanings. He is taking a cue from Shakespeare here; in the play's opening scene, as servants from the two houses have an encounter that will escalate to a major street fright, one asks edgily, "do you bite your thumb at us sir?" Morris weaves vivid gestures of scorn, spite, disgust, taunting and outright hatred into the opening scene. They caused some titters of amusement from the audience, and perhaps Morris did intend for a comic effect -- inviting us to see how silly these people's life-and-death hatred is. The gestures threatened to become overused, but then Morris allows for less emphatic use of them, and enlivened the stage picture with bits of activity through which the hostilities gradually swelled into the inevitable clash. He does not give us two advancing armies moving towards a face-off, but employs his smaller stage population deftly to show small moments of anger and disdain gradually escalating into something larger and more dangerous.
When the Montague and Capulet parents stride into the square, it is not with swords brandished and the certainty of a fight. They too enter the intricate fabric of what is transpiring, their vivid gestures conveying the intent of angry confrontation. Swords (wooden ones) are eventually brandished and used - though not wiht the fencing stances familiar from other versions of the ballet. Amid the intensifying action, the Friar -- earlier seen calmly strolling through the square vigorously rings the alarm bell heard in the score, to summon the authorities. Joe Bowie's black-clad Prince is an authoritative, martial figure whose commands no one dares ignore. The ensemble follows him dutifully in a snaking line once order has been restored. In a nice touch, Morris has Lord and Lady Montague (Guillermo Resto and Teri Weksler) as the last to leave the stage, allowing them a moment, as in the play, where they express concern about their son, and relief that he was not present for the violence.
Before Juliet enters, there is a brief scene of the Capulets (Megan Williams and a bearded Shawn Gannon) sealing the deal with Paris (Bradon McDonald) -- the men make the bargain and then Lady Capulet assigns the nurse the task of informing Juliet. These "discussions" employ more naturalistic mime than one sees in classical ballet, and include the use of a gesture for marriage Morris employs throughout the work -- a flower-like opening and circling of both hands. He extends his focus on gesture beyond the way it signals and incites violence, to the dialogues between characters, conveying with unforced vividness the connections and relationships between them.
The Capulet ball is less a grand presentation than a panorama of whispering, secretive intrigues -- between couples, between factions. The entrance scene, with couples entering through an upstage door that opens in the set, gradually accumulates mass and force. The music to which, in many productions, Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio dance a brisk, bravura trio is used for a playful social dance, with a group surrounding a changing set of individuals on a central pillow. The three interlopers' entrance is downplayed amid the busy festivities, and once the ponderous familiar chords begin, the stage darkens and as the couples dance more formally, Romeo sits on a side bench, facing the wall.
When he and Juliet meet up, their mutual exploration and delight builds beautifully, and with eloquent simplicity, from tentative to emboldened, as they metaphorically remove themselves from the stiffly delineated social world they inhabit. They touch palms (another allusion to the play's text), circle around each other with wonder, and eventually kiss. Morris has given them lovely open and clear phrases, so that their purity shines through. Once Tybalt (an assertive, intense Julie Worden, one of Morris' two major pieces of cross-gender casting) has intervened and Juliet is back within the Capulet system, she is nearly manhandled by Paris in the final ballroom dance to the Classical Symphony music. He repeatedly grabs her in sideways lifts that have the effect of pushing her against her will, as other couples echo this, confirming a society in which women are allowed no physical or emotional power of their own.
The other highly successful piece of non-traditional casting is Amber Darragh's Mercutio, which is a complete triumph. A sly, capering rule-breaker whose every move is delineated with crisp, feisty energy and with just enough mocking slyness, this Mercutio is never a mere scamp, but always exudes an air of danger. Bold and brazen, he has no patience for Romeo's dreaminess. His solo amid the ballroom scene has the nimbly scampering tone we associate with the character, but also comes across as an effort to bring Romeo back to reality. Mercutio pulls his ear, and incorporates other gestures that evoke an actual conversation between pals.
Prior to the final scenes, the original score follows what is familiar from the 1940 version, though the orchestral texture is leaner and brighter in places. The bustle and celebration of the second act's public scenes do feel somewhat over-extended, although Morris has kept them lively, playful and nuanced. Morris imaginatively incorporates formations and effects from his extensive folk dance background, and dancers often clap their hands vigorously or slap their thighs to the beat. There are no harlots to be found (thank goodness!); for a while Mercutio and Benvolio pair up with two women and bound joyfully as couples.
The Prince's centrality to Verona's life is affirmed by his passing through several times, appearing among his citizens during ordinary times and not just when a crisis requires his presence. He makes an entrance to the music Kenneth Macmillan used for the wedding procession, and it occasions a strange lockstep march, as most of those onstage follow behind him with rigid, mechanized arm movements.
The fatal showdown that leads to Mercutio's and Tybalt's deaths seems to occur on a sidestreet, away from the festivities, since there are no witnesses -- just those two, Benvolio, and Romeo following their tragic course. Both victims are mourned intensely by Ladies Capulet and Montague, and then borne off ceremoniously as the Prince is left downstage, bereft of any hope of peace in his city, to end Act Two.
A most sensual and believable bedroom scene has the lovers delighting in their nude bodies in the bed, draped with a scarlet sheet, and then touchingly celebrating their physical connection while half dressed -- Romeo in his tights, Juliet in his blousy white shirt. In the ballroom, Romeo seemed the more taken, the pursuer, but by now Juliet is assured and fully committed. In a lovely motif, she lifts him several times so that he seems to swirl around her body in the air. Both of them have - for a fleetingly triumphant moment -- defied gravity.
But of course they must come down to earth, and once Romeo has slipped out the window to face his banishment, Juliet finds herself literally trapped within a severe quartet -- her parents, Paris and the nurse, confirming that she has no escape. Once the Friar (a comforting, slightly doubting John Heginbotham) has enabled her to slip out of her enforced fate by means of the potion, a great deal of activity takes place in her bedroom on the intended wedding morning. Paris brings gift, each introduced by a dance, and here we find the familiar musical set pieces that had been elided from the earlier acts, including the mandolin dance, as well as some new and lovely sections, including one exotic-sounding one featuring swirling clarinet lines. But the scene does pause the action late in the evening and threatens to feel merely decorative.
The familiar tomb music is heard, but the action never shifts to the Capulet vault, as the 1935 score's difference makes itself felt in the fourth act. One has to accept that Romeo, and then the Friar, somehow gain access to the bedroom (presumably in the chaos of grief that has followed the discovery of Juliet's "death"). Just as Romeo moves to stab himself, Juliet begins to stir, to music that is a delicate string arrangement of the motif for Friar Laurence's cell. The score incorporates other familiar themes and motifs; on first hearing, nothing stood out as completely new and different.
Somewhat shockingly, Friar Laurence again sounds the alarm -- does he want to prevent their escape? The room fills with both families and seemingly all of Verona, but the lovers have slipped away. The general reaction seems one of relief, if not joy at their survival, members of the rival family factions pair up and embrace, suggesting the lovers have inspired momentary truce. The scene freezes in a tableau, and the curtain falls briefly.
When it rises, the wooden walls have vanished, and the lovers find themselves in a celestial starry setting. Their bodies open and ecstatic, they celebrate their freedom with lilting fluidity. As they conclude, the music sounds similar to that with which the other version ends, but the sweetly hopeful shift to a major key feels appropriate. Romeo and Juliet in float around each other in circles that seem to expand into infinity.
Photos by Gene Schiavone
Top: Rita Donahoe and David Leventhal in the final scene
Bottom: Julie Worden and Amber Darragh