Go Deeper

Told And Retold: Meditating on Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s “Romeo & Juliet”

Posted July 23rd, 2010

Even when I know how a story ends, I might want to read it or hear it again, to hear it told with someone else’s style. There’s something thrilling in retelling a story to someone else, in embellishing and emphasizing and making a story one’s own. The ways in which stories can be put together seem endless–maybe that’s what makes them interesting in the first place. Even if we guess the outcome, we still want to see or share the journey. Ultimately, retellings allow us to see the new ways a basic structure can be put together, how that structure is rebuilt and retold, and what parts the teller chooses to highlight.

Or, at least, that’s what the Nature Theater of Oklahoma thinks. After calling up everyday people and asking them to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet (which Live Arts is bringing to Philadelphia in September) in their own words, Nature Theater synthesized these accounts and constructed a retelling of the star-crossed lovers’ tragedy based solely upon their phone interviews. Invention and imagination take the place of accuracy in this performance, but it’s up to the audience to determine if that leaves the story diminished.

I like to think that the Nature Theater is right, that the creativity of a retelling can be as intriguing as the original story, no matter how much it deviates from the original author’s setup. Retellings create a fascinating recursive effect: they allow us to create stories from the stories that we’re hearing and seeing. They give us the chance to learn something about the people doing the playing and the telling in the first place.

Where tellers choose to place their focus indicates what parts of a plot and which characters resonated most with them; we can build entirely new stories about the storytellers based on what they choose to narrate. And so, in anticipation of Nature Theater’s production, I’m taking on the mini-project of collecting and synthesizing the Live Arts staff members’ versions of Romeo and Juliet. But first, let me share my version of the story with you . . .

So here’s what happened:

There are these two families. The Capulets and the Montagues. They’re wealthy and powerful, maybe even politically powerful. Either way, they rank amongst the upper echelon of Venetian society. Oh, and they hate each other–but I don’t really have a good idea as to why. It’s a blood-feud thing, I think. The kind that’s been going on for generations.

This feud is so intense that members of each family go around the city getting into gang fights. Seriously. The whole story starts with a gang fight. Benvolio, a Montague, is out with some other Montagues. In their marauding, they have a run-in with Tybalt, a hot-tempered Capulet, and some of his lackeys. Things start out with a kind of verbal sparring; a shouting of slurs and jeers and what have you. But the situation escalates pretty quickly. Next thing you know, Benvolio and company are entangled in a physical fight with Tybalt and the other Capulets and the whole thing has to be broken up by the presiding city official (let’s call him the Prince). Both boys are sent off with reprimands about civil unrest, but I’m pretty sure they escape any more serious forms of punishment.

End scene.

Enter Romeo, the son of Lord Montague. Romeo seems like a spoiled layabout, if we’re being honest. We’re introduced to him lazing around town with his best friend, Mercutio, and lamenting his seriously underwhelming love life. As he explains to Mercutio (and Benvolio, who shows up still bearing the scuffs and scrapes of battle), he is desperately in love with a girl whose name I don’t remember. It might be Rosalynd. But her name isn’t really important, as Romeo makes impeccably clear.

What is important is that the said object of desire is opting out of premarital sex. Obviously, this leaves Romeo between a rock and a hard, sexually frustrated place, what with this extremely attractive girl refusing all of his charms. If only he had the chance to seduce her properly, and get her to change her mind about all those nonsense vows of chastity.

Oh, but wait! Mercutio has a solution. There’s some kind of masked-ball thing going up in a few nights. Sure, it’s a Capulet party, but that’s a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. The grand scheme of things being: everybody who’s anybody is going to be at this party, and Rosalynd (presumably) is definitely a somebody, even if she’s a prude. Thus, it makes sense to assume she’ll be there, in all her virginal glory. And what better way to court a girl than on the dance floor?

Romeo seems somewhat skeptical of this idea, seeing as how he’s a Montague, and he’s pretty sure he’s not going to be on the VIP list for a Capulet-hosted dance fest. But Mercutio, the ever-resourceful, has a plan in the form of forged invitations. We leave the boys rejoicing over the idea of party crashing and turn to a scene with . . .

Young Juliet! As we quickly learn, Juliet is young, precocious, and in her mother’s opinion, ripe for marriage. Preferably to the dashing young Paris, who seems to have a lot of accolades to his name (although what these accolades are, precisely, Madame Capulet never really explains in great detail).

As luck would have it, wonder-boy Paris will be at the masked ball! Juliet will get to meet him. He’ll be charmed by her beauty and intelligence. They’ll be engaged by midnight. Juliet seems to have little say in this scheme, and takes everything in stride. Or maybe she’s really good at sublimating any rebellious feelings towards her mother. Either way, she agrees to the plan.

The night of the party doesn’t really go exactly as anyone had intended. Romeo never meets Rosalynd. Juliet meets Paris, but there’s no spark. And then, our titular intrepid youngsters encounter one another and it’s love at first sight. No, really. It is. They’re all passion and secret kisses in the corners and whispered words of affection and desire. Eventually, their canoodling is curtailed by Juliet’s nurse, who catches them and drags her young charge away. And to add insult to injury, she informs Juliet that her newfound heartthrob is the son of Lord Montague, her family’s sworn enemy, so she’d better get her head out of the clouds and forget about him.

Of course, things are not so simple. Some short (but ultimately indeterminable) amount of time passes after the party before Romeo comes calling at Juliet’s window in the middle of the night. More impassioned vows of love are exchanged. Romeo proposes. Juliet says yes. You can tell they’re young, because they’re leaping from first meeting to marriage in the span of like . . . four days.

They agree to a secret engagement, presumably with plans to elope, but I’m not really sure they’ve thought things through quite so thoroughly. One would hope that everything is smooth sailing from here . . . but this is not the case. Tybalt is on a mission to hunt down Romeo, what with catching wind of Romeo having stolen his tender cousin Juliet’s honor (read: he heard that Romeo probably had sex with Juliet). In his search for the young Montague, Tybalt comes across Mercutio and Benvolio. There’s another gang fight and Tybalt strikes a fatal stab to Mercutio’s stomach. As misfortune would have it, Romeo arrives just in time to witness his friend’s death and, in a revenge-driven rage, murders Tybalt.

Things aren’t looking good. Romeo goes into hiding with apparently the only man who can help him: a sketchtastic apothecary-priest . . . who might also be a drug dealer. While in hiding, Romeo catches wind of the sentence for his crime: exile. He flees the city with the priest’s promise that he will find a way to help Romeo reunite with Juliet.

But we’re already too far into the downward spiral to believe that things could work out now. The priest’s plan ultimately ends in more death. He provides Juliet with a sleeping draught strong enough to make her appear dead to the untrained eye. The goal: to trick her family into believing that she’s committed suicide so that, once the drug wears off, she can run away with Romeo. Unfortunately, Romeo somehow ends up returning to the city, not speaking to the priest, and instead encounters Juliet’s not-quite-dead body straight away. Beside himself with grief, he commits suicide by dagger. Juliet wakes to find him dead. Unable to bear the thought of being apart from her dearly beloved, she too stabs herself and dies.

The story ends there. You knew how it ended. I might have missed some crucial details and forgotten some names–but you read my version anyway. So what about a retelling makes you want to hear the story in the first place?

–Logan Tiberi-Warner

Photo Credit: Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Peter Nirgini, Kerstin Joensson