backstage (2006-16)

Kissing by the Book

Actor’s Co-op takes Shakespeare to Appalachia, kinda

AIN’T THOU ROMEO?: Shakespeare in any setting would be just as sweet.

by Kevin Crowe

When Romeo and Juliet begins at the Black Box Theatre, most of the dialogue remains true to Shakespeare’s original text, save one word. The entire 10-person cast comes on stage, reciting in unison the slow, metronomic chorus: Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Ap-la-cha, where we lay our scene.…

This production doesn’t take place in stately Verona amid the lush vistas of the Italian countryside—the Romeo and Juliet we see are late 19th-century southerners, holed up in the Appalachian backwoods, where an Ap-la-cha pronunciation keeps the staunchly Shakespearean iambic decameter intact.

The idea for this re-imagining first came about after a few Co-op members visited the rural mountaintops of Kentucky, where the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud took place. The parallels between the Hatfield/McCoy and the Capulet/Montague sagas are obvious: these families don’t like one another. So, it’s not too much of a stretch to dress the actors up with the appropriate apparel, set it in the mountains, and let them speak Shakespeare. And, every now and then, pronounce something with a slight southern twang, because “washed” easily becomes “wershed” without changing the verse’s intended cadence.

Remakes of Shakespeare’s plays, even the most dismal failures, seem to be more popular than the productions in which actors don pantaloons and speak with foppish English accents. Those productions that try to capture the original essence of Shakespeare may be yawns, akin to a stuffy museum exhibition or a worn textbook chapter, bedaubed with coffee stains and years of boring academic brainsickness. The old, real Shakespeare, it seems, only succeeds at the Globe Theatre or at Shakespeare on the Square, where alcohol is available.

Ethan Hawke had his version of Hamlet set in a futuristic, business-controlled New York. Leonardo DiCaprio played Romeo in the 20th century, replete with guns and gangs. There was even a production of Othello wherein Patrick Stewart played the Moor and every other cast member was black. Here in Knoxville, a couple of years back at the Clarence Brown Theatre, there was a version of Twelfth Night set in bebop-era America, à la West Side Story .

Those productions work because they demonstrate the power and relevance of Shakespeare’s words. People who’ve never read the bard outside of a high school literature class will likely tell you, because they’ve heard it said before at least a thousand times, that Shakespeare’s words are timeless.

But this production does something different than other, trendier interpretations of the bard’s work. Here, the language seems to be set free, as the setting feels secondary (perhaps even tertiary) to the original story. It’s in Appalachia, but it ain’t Southern; this Shakespeare refuses to be countrified.

Jarron Vosburg, appearing in his third Black Box production, has the look of a Romeo; he’s young, with the stern demeanor of a kid who has studied elocution extensively, giving his Romeo just enough pompousness to belie his total, love-struck inexperience.

Conversely, Martha Reddick’s Juliet brings a bit of unconstrained emotion to her performance, at times appearing more experienced than her wannabe-lover does. When they kiss, Juliet says, “You kiss by the book,” a hint that Juliet—Reddick’s Juliet in particular—knows more about this thing called love than she lets on.

The other cast members take on multiple roles. You’ll see the same actor playing a member of the Capulet clan; then, a couple of scenes later, that same actor’s a Montague.

In the first scene, we see a slapdash portrayal of violence, as Samson and Gregory quote legal jargon before brawling. Throughout the play, love and hate are interrelated, with the possibility of death always lurking in the background.

Also in the background are the other cast members, switching roles and changing costumes, slowly working to send the madcap feud toward a violent tableau.

Travis Flatt, when he’s playing Tybalt, infuses the character with the same angst and energy he brings onstage when he’s fronting the local hardcore band Sadville, suggesting that all the aggregate anger surrounding the Capulet-Montague feud is unfocused, but always manages to find a way to express itself. The same is true of love. Both always find a way, usually without a Hallmark ending.

This production shows us that Shakespeare’s original verse is the source of the play’s resonance, not the re-imagined, Appalachian setting. The point isn’t that Shakespeare can be updated, but that his works should be updated, that his drama is undeniably human, yet more primitive than we’d like to imagine ourselves. And the primeval aura that is woven throughout Romeo and Juliet applies to any period, any moment in history. It’s not exactly high drama, because it concerns everyone, from the groundlings to the aristocracy. Still does.

Characters onstage at the Black Box don’t wax eloquent just for the sake of doing Shakespeare. There’s no air of pretentiousness about their performances. For them, the language isn’t elevated; it’s just the script. And there’s a reason Shakespeare is still performed and his contemporaries are studied by English grad students: There’s truth in the words.

The cast understands those truths, as well as the complexities of love and hate, without overplaying them. Pure Shakespeare, nothing more, so it works.

Who: Actor’s Co-op