Posted by Mead Hunter
Okay, Nature Theater of Oklahoma‘s Romeo and Juliet closes TONIGHT, so let me just say: do not miss this final performance. Whether Shakespeare’s famous text last baffled you in high school or you’ve suffered countless outdoor summer performances of it or you’ve actually trod the boards with it, this affectionate mish-mash is a laugh-out-loud epiphany.
The piece’s origins are themselves intriguing; the performance text is constructed largely from phone calls to people who were asked to say what happens in the course of the R&J. That alone would be droll, but the evening’s unrelenting self-referentiality pushes the presentation over the top. Of course you know this will be the case as soon as you enter the theater–the set says it all. A large flat dominates the upstage area; on it you behold a mammoth backdrop of stage curtains. These are framed by sumptuous cerulean draperies embroidered with gold thread, presumably covering an imposing proscenium. All this is painted in gorgeous trompe l’oeil — or at least it’s gorgeous until you notice that a pandemic of trompe l’oeil mildew ravages the backdrop. The forestage is equally dubious; there’s an old-timey prompter’s box painted in faux wood grain, and a series of tin cans tinted with bronze paint that stand in for footlights.
The actors’ appearances extends this motif. Anne Gridley is a vaguely Opheliaesque figure bedecked in plastic flowers; Robert M. Johanson wears tights that give him a prominent bulge, and he sports a spandex tank top festooned with ruffles. But it is their physical vocabulary that marks them as Master Thespians: the back of the hand to the forehead to signal distress, the outreached arm for the more stentorian phrases, the clasped hands held to the abdominal area to broadcast a stab wound.
The staginess extends to speech, too, as ordinary words are bloated almost beyond their capacity to convey meaning: language becomes long-gwodge, balcony becomes bal-CONY, confused turns into con-FYU-said.
For all the hilarity, however, the most absorbing part of the performance comes when the actors segue into a pensive, soul-wrack’d discursion into why people perform for others in the first place. Is it just neediness? A desire to be loved? And if so, might we just accept that, even celebrate — “use it,” as actors would say?
The apparent detour gives all the comedy precisely the ballast it needs to turn the evening from a mere lark into something memorable and personal. So does a beautiful coda, coming after the curtain call, the beauty of which I will not blunt by prepping you for it here. Instead I’ll just say GO to this show’s final performance tonight, and bring your cronies with you. You’ll be talking about this for years.