Studio 58's current staging of Romeo and Juliet, which launches the venerable performance training institution's 50th anniversary season and runs through this Saturday, bills itself as an immersive production set in the swinging 1960s. More specifically, the play's opening scenes unfurl at a party in Andy Warhol's Factory, with many of the guests already lolling about in debauched loucheness as audience members file into the theatre to take their seats. But there's the rub: as spectators, we actually sit through this entire performance. Action takes place in the round, with some of it spilling into or emerging out of different tiers of seating. However, we do not move--and, in the absence of quaaludes or other drugs to make it feel otherwise, that's hardly my definition of immersion.
I'm also left to query director Anita Rochon's decision to update the action to the 1960s. It seems to be a bit of a caprice, more the young creative team's idea of what that period symbolized ("Live fast, die young") than offering any deeper insight into the themes of the play. (Then, too, there are some mixed temporal signals sent by both the costuming and the music. Tybalt and Mercutio, played by Kamyar Pazandeh and Conor Stimson O'Gorman respectively, look like they could have stepped out of a scene in West Side Story featuring the Sharks and the Jets.) Warhol, who stands in for the Prince of Verona, is played with a slouch and an ill-fitting wig by Nathan Kay; he trolls the action with his Super-8 camera, immortalizing his superstars. Chief among these is Edie Sedgwick (Chloe Richardson), the only other historical figure from the period who mingles among Shakespeare's fictional personages. Perhaps this is because she really did die young, following a brief marriage and--as crucially--a break with Warhol and his set. Otherwise, it's not clear what dramatic or symbolic function she serves.
Indeed, while in this version they do end up as beautiful silk-screened corpses in one of Warhol's "Death and Disaster" series of paintings, Romeo and Juliet seem to be the exact opposite of Warhol's superstars. Both in Shakespeare's play and in this production, they are the most authentic folks around. Casting Camille Legg as a lesbian Romeo seems to have less to do with putting a sexually subversive spin on this famous romance than showcasing Legg's extraordinary talents and facility with the text. Whether as a moony teenager still in love with Rosaline, a hot-headed kinsperson intent on avenging Mercutio's death, or a mourning lover for whom suicide is not just logical but inevitable, Legg is never less than fully present and believable. When she is on stage you cannot take your eyes off of her. I had more problems with Adelleh Furseth's jittery turn as Juliet, whose impatience to be married to Romeo and distress at the death of her cousin Tybalt seemed to be conveyed with the exact same physical quality, namely rocking back and forth agitatedly on her heels. Nevertheless, it is quite captivating to watch the scene in the Factory when the two lovers first spy each other; their wordless, whirling courtship, in which each's body becomes the new fixed point in the other's world, is made all the more kinetically compelling as a result of the horizontal movement of the other Factory guests (the choreography is by the wonderful Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg).
One final comment on the cuts to the text. To be sure, this is standard practice in most Shakespeare productions. However, one would think that a guiding rationale should be to preserve the integrity of both the text's poetry and its plot. Here, it seems, Rochon was concerned to find a way to give all the actors at least one or two speaking lines. How else to explain, at the end of this production, the mystery of retaining the bit of comic relief with the musicians at the end of Act 4, Scene 5 while cutting out altogether Romeo's slaying of Paris?
Definitely something to talk about with my students...