The Grinnell High School’s performance of “Romeo and Juliet”—as interpreted by the performers—bridged the gap between contemporary courtship and Shakespearean soliloquy as remarkably talented high school students played their roles for nearly two and a half hours. “The theme of secret passion is both timeless and sublimely relevant …” as the director, Michael Hunter, wrote in the program.
The performance took place before an impressive set made to look like a crumbling, although stately, manor. Functional staircases and ingenious back exits made the play run smoothly, as the curiously adorned characters engaged in the fast-paced wit with which Shakespeare made his name. Scene transitions were aided by a mix of modern and historical music that added to the overall effect of contrasting Shakespearean language and plot with modern inflection and dress.
The costuming was perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this unconventional play. The first two characters to enter did not seem much different from what one would expect from the traditional interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet”—until the audience saw the Converse and pink fishnet stockings. From that scene on, each character entered with increasingly elaborate mélanges of color, pattern and hairstyles. Romeo spent most of the play in torn black pants and black shirt with the occasional black leather jacket, while Juliet transitioned from red corset to red pajamas as night overcame day. Our honorable Friar, played by John Doorenbos,,wore conflicting shades of plaid with a garish tie, while an intimidating Lord Capulet, played by Thomas Grabinski,wore red plaid from head to toe. This is not to mention Montague, whose hair was piled into an impressive mohawk. Taken in combination with the traditional set, the costuming imbued the play with an irony that I suspect Shakespeare would have found appropriate.
The role of jocular Mercutio was played by Nora Tjossem, whose performance was superb as she added comic relief to Romeo’s admittedly sappy romance. Her wit was well-timed and she used her role as a feminine Mercutio to its advantage. Her provocative description of what amounted to a dirty dream cast a new light on Romeo’s proclamations of love for Rosalie in one of the opening scenes, and her drunken search for Romeo as he hid beneath Juliet’s window had the whole audience giggling.
Much like Mercutio, the play was carefully scripted to keep the audience guessing and succeeded in avoiding the usual clichés of “Romeo and Juliet.” The classic line “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” was spoken around a toothbrush as our lovely Juliet, played by Meredith Kalkbrenner, prepared for bed, and as Romeo, played by John Stark, hid in the garden and spoke to the audience of her beauty, Juliet worked diligently to pop a zit. The final scene, as Juliet prepared to die, came to a quick and violent end as she whipped out a revolver and shot herself during which I’m sure I was not the only one to jump in my seat.
The play certainly needed its moments of surprise due to the length of the show—two and a half hours—that added to the tedium of yet another interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet.” While the unique perspective and glimpses of true acting talent redeemed the show’s extended plot, some of Shakespeare’s impeccable timing was lost as time dragged onward. However, the play demonstrated the remarkable flexibility of theatre to address the core conflicts of society, no matter the era.