This is the shtick (and pay attention if you plan on seeing the show, because it won't make one scratch of sense otherwise): New York's Nature Theater of Oklahoma
founders Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska called up friends and family members, asked them to recall the story of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
and turned their responses, word-for-word—“uhm”s, “ah”s, “shit”s and all—into the script for this play.
The various retellings of the Bard's classic are performed as monologues by actors Anne Gridley and Robert M. Johanson in a hammy Elizabethan style
—faux British accents, over-enunciated words and grandiose hand gestures—with lines like, “Juliet is the sky, and I am the sun. No! It's getting all jumbled in my head. Jumbled in my head!" delivered as if they were lilting Shakespearian sonnets.
Yes, it's a bit of a one-trick pony, but each soliloquy is so singularly silly that it's fun to see how each interpretation will play out, and despite every speech receiving the same pompous treatment, the unique character of each respondent shines through. There's one who tries to tie the whole story to the death of Anna Nicole Smith and 9/11, one who's convinced it's a story about teenagers trying to get their rocks off (including an entirely imagined final scene in which Paris—Juliet's “former fiancé”—jerks off over her corpse before engaging in a sword fight with Romeo) and one who can't remember reading the play in high school, so instead recounts the story of a girl in her gym class reading it.
Really, this play is more about memory than it is about Romeo and Juliet
(which just happens to be a convenient story that almost every American has seen, read or studied, but rarely beyond their High School years), and how eight different people remember and interpret the same story in such wildly different ways, and the thoughts, memories and observations that arise as they attempt to do so.
Part of the fun is also the audience's own struggle to remember—there are hesitant titters over mentions of Juliet's brother, debates over which protagonist killed themselves first, and whether it was with a sword or poison. And was Juliet the East, the West, the sun or the moon?—and the slow realization that few of us could have offered better summaries than, “Did you ever see West Side Story? It's the same story, but with Puerto Ricans.”
It's a brilliant idea—in both conception and execution—and I wish Copper and Liska hadn't felt the need to embellish it any further. Unfortunately, they decided to tack on a final scene in which the actors re-enact a conversation between the two directors about the play itself, performed in the same mocking manner. It's long, confusing, and entirely unnecessary.
Oh, and a giant dancing chicken pops up occasionally.
Thankfully, the bulk of the show is comprised solely of the original conceit, and the performance is redeemed by a beautiful surprise conclusion that I won't spoil for you.
Poultry and directorial indulgences aside, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Romeo and Juliet
is a fresh, touching, thought-provoking and, most importantly, piss-funny piece of theater, for anyone who was too busy worrying about their own love life in high school to have paid much attention to a story about those of two "Medieval Italians" (as one respondent puts it).
Now excuse me while I go dust off my Cliffs Notes…
The Works at Washington High School, 531 SE 14th Ave. 6:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, Sept. 15-18. $20 members, $25 general.