Guerrilla Theater Company presented The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet in September, 1994 at the Actors' Gym, 2393 Professor Avenue in Tremont.
Just before dawn, in a Verona remarkably like the modern day Midwest, a moment before first light, the first, gentle strains of A Warm Place by Nine Inch Nails warbles over the audience. In the dim glow we find Romeo, wandering listlessly, composing a poem to himself.
An ominous tableau is made even more disturbing by the effeminate voice of the Prince, cutting over the music.
The Prince: Two households, both alike in dignity,With the dawn our Romeo can see his friends approaching, and he is gone. We are listening to a radio, and the dee jay cuts in:
In fair Verona where we lay our scene
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean ...
Dee Jay: 107.9 The End. Good morning, I'm Vic Gideon and it looks like we're gonna have another hot one this beautiful July day, with a projected high of ninety-four degrees. Don't let the heat go to your head -- and if you must speak daggers, please do not use any. It's the Offspring with "Come Out and Play" on Verona's Only Modern Music Station, 107.9 The End.Scene Magazine reviewer Keith Joseph, confused by the young age of everyone in the cast, he suggested that the concept was that the entire show took place in a high school, that even the parents were teenagers, and the Prince, in fact, a Principal. This last image, bolstered by the slight manner in which all reprimands were delivered, and the whole voice-coming-over-a-speaker thing, seems upon reflection to be forgivable.
So did his appraisal of Tybalt as a “mean, dyke, punk rocker” and Mercutio as a “strident mall chick” -- a term which irked Gooch deeply.
James Damico in the Free Times gave us two paragraphs (and no photo!) in which he accused us of considerably cutting the text, accused us of removing the story from its larger social context, and said Torque was the only actor who could handle the language. He closed by observing that “Mercutio, one of the ballsiest males in Shakespeare, is played for some elusive purpose, by a woman.”
One of my favorite moments in the entire play for downright giddy excitement is, of course, the Capulet Party Scene. Shame it comes so early in the production.
As Lord Capulet, Torque was excellent. Magisterial, his verse mellifluous, by turns stern, caring and ridiculous -- if he did not want any part in this production he never showed it on-stage. The party is his, he orders the servants about and commands the dee jay to play some appropriate music for such a modern party. The dee jay obliges with ABBA’s Does Your Mother Know, which provoked a few snickers. This was an entire year before the big disco revival.
The revelers have their normal costumes on, they simply wore whatever masks we could find in the basement. Some are leftovers from New Year’s with plumes of feathers. There was a Phantom mask, a Nixon mask, and of course, the Gorilla mask. Benvolio has on a rainbow fright wig and a funny nose and glasses. Tybalt’s is a simple neutral mask, sprayed cherry red -- and when she spies Romeo chatting up her cousin Juliet, she makes a bee-line right for him.
Lord Capulet: (stopping Tybalt) Why, how now, my kin? Wherefore storm you so?Capulet is all smiles, perhaps he knew there were Montagues there, eating his food, flirting with his progeny, but he won’t have a fight started in his house, not so soon after the last one. He speaks soothingly to Tybalt. She is beginning to fidget like an animal about to strike.
Tybalt: Uncle, this is a Montague, our foe,
A villain that is hither come in spite
To scorn our solemnity this night.
Lord Capulet: Young Romeo is it?
Tybalt: I’ll not endure him.And she tries to push by her uncle, but he snaps and grabs her by the arm.
Lord Capulet: He shall be endured!The music cuts out suddenly. Conversation has stopped and all eyes are on Lord Capulet.
(Keep in mind -- the entire cast is on the tiny stage here, thirteen actors, doing a creative but conscious job of mingling, silently so as to not detract from the main focus of the scene, and staying out of the audience’s direct line of sight.)
Capulet takes a moment, forces a laugh, gestures to the dee jay who begins a slow song, Walking to You by Everything But the Girl. Capulet pulls his fiery niece to him and they begin to dance. The party releases a collective sigh at this sweet sight and return to their conversations. Capulet hisses the rest of his commands in her ear as she fumes in humiliation.
Capulet: What, goodman, girl? I say he shall. Go to.It was Torque and Xanthe’s idea -- during rehearsal Torque asked if he could “try something” and did the dance bit. Suddenly I needed a slow song, either instrumental or with non-intrusive lyrics.
Am I the master here or you? Go to.
I met your boyfriend on St. Martin’s LaneThe song is played as Romeo and Juliet have their first conversation. I guess that made it their song.
And he said “fancy running into you again,”
We talked a minute or so, then he turned to go,
And I walked into the crowd again.
And the morning was a different place
In every passerby I saw your face
Love leaves a lonely ghost
With one thought upper most
Is this the case in every case?
Am I walking to you?
Am I walking to you?
In every thing that I do
Am I still walking to you?
When the party ends, partygoers depart through town. Black-shirted Capulet couples move through the city, holding hands -- one masked reveler says good night to an exhausted Tybalt, obviously smitten but receiving only a curt handshake good-bye. County Paris walks the streets alone -- he was last seen looking for his intended, the elusive Juliet.
She appears behind the last row of the house right seating section. Her balcony will be that last row, an entire seating section needs to turn around to see her.
Juliet: Ay me.Romeo already crouching, falls to the floor.
Romeo: She speaks! O, speak again ...
Juliet: O Romeo --
Theirs is a heartfelt, pulsing mating ritual. She asks for specifics regarding his intentions, and he struts about the big open stage, bragging, making circles and leaping, emboldened by her attentions.
A barrier has been placed halfway down the aisle for this scene, and she cannot move past, nor can he move to the first step of the platform, it is forbidden. They can barely touch. Only at the last do they strain their utmost, craning their necks for one kiss -- and fail. Romeo must be content with one kiss on his hand, and the feel of it on her face. The anticipation of reprising the few stolen kisses at the party must wait for their promised marriage day.
Most of the other characters were pretty arch, but I had made Romeo and Juliet sincere, and attempted to imbue them with true, giddy, romantic love. It was not my intention, setting out on this production, for this to happen. But theater, like life, rarely turns out the way you plan. My first marriage was falling apart. I was in love.
Some saw this discrepancy between the ironic and the earnest as a major weakness in the production, especially those who did not see the supporting characters as deeply etched with flaws, but as cartoons. “The Guerrillas,” said Plain Dealer critic Carolyn Jack, “can’t seem to decide if their version of Romeo and Juliet is a parody or not ... this production turns its characters into slackers, punks and other smart-alecky MTV types who drip with sarcasm.”
Perhaps. She went on to credit Eric and Tracey with “affecting and ultimately serious portrayals” and went on to say they had “a fresh, impulsive, giggly honesty that would delight anyone who has seen Shakespeare’s young lovers played, as they so often are, by self-important 35 year-olds.”
Jack put it most succinctly when she said the lovers’ scenes “look like bits of a BBC broadcast spliced into a Simpsons episode.”
Act One was an hour and a half long. And September, 1994 was very hot. And there was no real circulation in the theater, and the lights were very close to the audience. Opening night, sitting in the back row, a few feet from the ceiling, I could feel the temperature rise perceptibly. I truly worried we would lose people before the end of the show, but most everyone came back, ready to fan themselves with their programs. The second half was only an hour.
On the Cleveland Freenet, I came across a review of our show on the freenet.arts.thtr.critic bulletin board. An audience member praised the show highly. She was “surprised that the performance was the actual shakespeare r&j, olde english intact,” and that “most performances were double plus good.” She also pointed out, “the worst part of the whole play was how warm the actor’s gym became. uncomfortably warm. not the best circumstances in which to hear the bard.”
She closed by saying, “get out and see the show if you can. but wear a tank top.”
The Internet. Hmn. We were closing for good, and I wondered if the Net (we called it the Net in those days) would ever become something big enough that it could have had any use in promoting our plays. Or anything else for that matter.
In the Plain Press, the neighborhood newspaper for the Near West Side, Virginia Jones also reported, “the house was uncomfortably hot.” Joseph remarked in Scene Magazine that “better ventilation and more toilet facilities would have helped.” We had one toilet in the Boutique downstairs, which always served us well when we had a dozen audience members, but a sold-out house of 90 had a difficult time with it after ninety minutes of sitting. We got permission from Edison’s to send people over there, and our ten-minute intermission sometimes stretched to twenty-five.
The Free Times, the Plain Dealer, Scene Magazine, the Plain Press, the Akron-Beacon Journal, the Morning Journal, the Gay Peoples’ Chronicle, the CWRU Observer ... Guerrilla Theater Company was covered. Finally, after two years, everyone was writing about us. We probably attracted more attention simply because we were also announcing our demise, and that made people want to see us before we were gone.
Saturday, October 1st, marked our final performance. Scollard took a piece of chalk and wrote one of Mercutio’s lines (act 2, sc. 1) on the big, black, back wall of The Actors’ Gym, to be our epitaph: