Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie

The Guthrie Theater debuted a new production of Romeo and Juliet over the weekend. It premiered on Saturday night, and I saw it on Sunday. The play’s greatness is, I think, unquestioned, but what of the Guthrie’s production? Here are my thoughts.

1) There was too much low comedy and broad humor in the play’s first half (there is one intermission). A number of times–five? ten?–actors and actresses, not content to recite lines that contained double entendres, grabbed their crotches. Does the play’s director, Joseph Haj, think we are too slow-witted to get the joke without this kind of visual aid? I suspect so. In any event, the repeated crudeness was distracting and unwelcome.

2) Consistent with that approach, Kate Eastman plays Juliet, in the show’s first half, as a lusty wench, which is not how Shakespeare wrote the part. Romeo, on the other hand, is an inept bumbler, much as fathers have been portrayed in contemporary sitcoms. And 21st Century feminist ideas are imported. Thus, Romeo can’t climb up to Juliet’s balcony, while Juliet easily scrambles up a vine. This has everything to do with contemporary prejudices, and nothing to do with Shakespeare.

3) The costumes are ill-assorted with the set. The set is straightforward 16th-Century Verona. But the costumes are mixed, and mostly modern. Thus, several characters appear in suits that appear to me to be of 1950s vintage, although they may be back in fashion. Other characters are dressed in a style more or less appropriate to 16th-Century Verona. Particularly discordant are three of the Prince’s policemen, none of whom looks remotely like a law enforcement officer, then or now, but all of whom are garbed in modern police gear, including helmets, bulletproof vests and truncheons.

What is the point of sending some of the actors onto the stage in modern clothes? There is no point, as best I can tell. One can only conclude that Guthrie staff thought that in order to be remotely avant-garde, some of the characters needed to be wearing suits.

4) African-American actors and actresses are sprinkled randomly through the cast. Thus, for example, Juliet’s mother is black. This casting never has any significance, and we obviously are expected to disregard it. I am fine with that, and the African-American actors and actresses all acquitted themselves well. James Williams’s Friar Lawrence was, in particular, outstanding. I am willing to suspend disbelief in this regard.

But Mercutio is played by a woman, Kelsey Didion. It isn’t a case of a woman playing a man (as men often played women in Shakespearian times). Rather, the script transforms Mercutio into a woman. She sports an exposed midriff, and the script changes references from “he” to “she.” Mercutio is a woman.

This is problematic in ways that the director doesn’t seem to understand. The play’s program says:

Traditionally, the pivotal role of Romeo’s good friend is cast as a guy.

This is, frankly, idiotic. Mercutio is a guy. It is like saying, “Traditionally, the pivotal role of Romeo’s lover is cast as a girl.” But the problem goes deeper. More:

In our production, the super-talented Kelsey Didion plays Mercutio, and pronouns have been changed to reflect that choice. Why? Guthrie Associate Producer Lauren Keating sums it up succinctly: “Kelsey was the best actor who auditioned for the role.” … [W]ith Kelsey in the role, it sets up a really interesting contrast between Mercutio as a young woman about town and Juliet as a young woman about town–very different perspectives of femininity.”

But 16th Century “perspectives of femininity” did not include street brawling and sword fighting. The pivotal scene in which Romeo and Juliet swings from comedy to tragedy is a street brawl in which Juliet’s cousin Tybalt kills Romeo’s friend Mercutio in a sword fight. Romeo, trying to act as a peacemaker, inadvertently aids Tybalt by restraining Mercutio. Once Tybalt has killed Mercutio, Romeo has no choice but to avenge his friend, which he does by fighting, and killing, Tybalt. The Prince of Verona, being more or less fully informed, spares Romeo’s life but exiles him from the city.

This critical plot sequence makes no sense if Mercutio is a woman. 16th-Century Veronese ladies did not engage in street brawls and sword fights. If Tybalt had murdered a woman with his sword, he would have been an outcast. Romeo’s killing of him would have been questioned by no one, and the entire plot would have been upended. But the Guthrie doesn’t seem to notice that mixing 21st Century and 16th Century sensibilities has consequences–although, for what it is worth, I don’t think that 21st Century women do a lot of street brawling and sword fighting, either.

5) The play’s second half is much better than the first. In the second half, the tragedy–and Shakespeare–take over. There is no more crotch grabbing. Romeo is no longer buffoonish, and Juliet is not anachronistically on the make. The tragedy, as it unfolds, is riveting, and the acting is very good. The Prince of Verona, well played by Bill McCallum, brings the drama to an end with appropriate gravity.

Maybe this contrast was intentional. Maybe the director said, let’s do the first half as low comedy, and then transition to tragedy in the second half. Maybe the contrast was, in some way, effective. But I think the production would have been better if the Guthrie had dispensed with 21st Century preoccupations and stereotypes in the first half of the play, and trusted instead to Shakespeare and the play’s very great text, as it did in the second half.