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Reviewed by:
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Pamela Decker
Romeo and Juliet. Conceived and directed by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Wexner Center for the Performing Arts, Columbus, OH. 19 May 2010.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma created its production of Romeo and Juliet nearly verbatim from the interviews of eight people asked to recount Shakespeare's play in their own words. The result was an often hilarious and engaging piece that commented not only on the endurance of Shakespeare's text in our contemporary culture, but also on our expectations of Shakespearean performance and the imperfections of our collective and individual memories. Nature Theater of Oklahoma, based in New York City (the company's name is from a chapter in a Kafka novel), has formed for itself a theatrical niche by creating narrative plays shaped by memories, both individual and collective, as opposed to using a written text. Its previous productions include Rambo Solo, a performance piece created entirely from a young man's memories of reading the David Morrell novel First Blood, and No Dice, which also incorporated interviews into its performance text. Using what is often the first Shakespeare play taught in schools, Nature Theater's production of Romeo and Juliet had a certain mock-high school quality in its attempt to see how our collective memory compares to the original play. What kept this successful production from spinning into pointless, if hilarious, parody was the expert dramaturgical sense that the show's creators Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper brought to the material, the steadfast commitment to the audience/performer relationship by its two main performers, Anne Gridley and Robert Johanson, and Peter Negrini's playful set and costume designs. All the elements of the production worked well together to communicate an absurd and humorous tone that grounded itself in its commitment to the exploration of Shakespeare's text and its multiple meanings for a contemporary audience.

Sticking to the concept of mock-theatricality, Gridley and Johanson performed their lines in an over-the-top, pseudo-Shakespearean style. While lesser performers might have simply treated this material as a send-up or parody of bloated Shakespearean acting, both Gridley and Johanson committed fully to their roles, creating characters who were deeply interested in connecting with the audience and communicating the scattered storylines. A third performer, Elisabeth Conner, made brief appearances throughout the performance, climbing out

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Anne Gridley in Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Romeo and Juliet. (Photo: Nature Theater of Oklahoma.)

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Robert M. Johanson and Anne Gridley in Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Romeo and Juliet. (Photo: Nature Theater of Oklahoma.)

of the trap door between Gridley's and Johanson's monologues dressed in a chicken suit, dancing suggestively. While these odd interludes made little sense beyond establishing a break between the two main actors' monologues, it seemed appropriate for the general absurdity of the production.

The first part of the show alternated between Gridley and Johanson delivering monologues alone onstage, addressing the audience directly as they gave their accounts of the play, replete with the "like's," "um's," and "you know's" that one would usually stammer when asked to recall the plot of any play. The performance text that Liska and Copper compiled from the interviews was a collection of contemporary language, colloquial paraphrasings, and even irreverent critical analyses: Gridley mused absentmindedly that "they were, like, in their teens," and at one point Johanson declared that "Romeo was a Man-whore." However, as irreverent as some of the descriptions were, Liska and Copper clearly arranged the text to create an emotional arc. As the production proceeded, the script began to include tangential commentary beyond the plot of Romeo and Juliet, even including cultural references to figures such as Anna Nicole Smith and Osama Bin Laden, which gave the monologues elements of unpredictability and rising action.

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Robert M. Johanson and Anne Gridley in Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Romeo and Juliet. (Photo: Nature Theater of Oklahoma.)

The second half, while not as funny, was necessary to give the production a...


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