Thanks for the Memories

Should you receive a telephone call asking you to re-tell the plot of Romeo and Juliet, those star-crossed lovers from the ever-warring Montague and Capulet families, what would you say? Could you retrieve the play from the fog of high school or college? Would you be embarrassed at gaps in your recollection? Would you embellish the details, or gloss over those parts you can’t recall? Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the dynamic duo behind the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, called people, including both actors in this production, with precisely that question, to gather material for the frequently hilarious and often charmingRomeo and Juliet. The play’s main content consists of eight monologues, recited by “Bobby” (Robert M. Johanson) and “Anne” (Anne Gidley), talented actors who funnel the confusion, colloquialisms, slang, frustrations, vulgarities and naiveté of the telephone interviewees through Shakespearean affect, to produce sidesplitting results. Picture, if you will, an earnest Shakespearean actor (or a purported Shakespearean actor, which is even funnier) in very tight tights reciting the following somewhat damaged recollection of Juliet’s death, as conveyed by one interviewee, and infused as it is with contemporary allusions:

“There was some like – It was – it was in- Like they set it up as this like – It was already in the morgue… Sort of thing. Like she – Went – And – Killed herself in this very… IT’S SORT OF LIKE ANNA NICOLE! You know?”

Even though the conversations may be loaded with material from acquaintances of Liska and Copper (conversations with complete strangers may have added a different, perhaps less candid and bawdy dimension), this particular Romeo and Juliet succeeds in demonstrating the universality of the great tragedy and its impact on our society’s collective memory. Even though the interviewees get it so wrong, somehow, in the end, they get it right. Peter Nigrini’s simple set is clever in its signaling of the dialogue’s lack of sophistication. It’s a simple wooden painted stage—with painted curtains—in front of which the actors stand to recite their monologues.

Romeo and Juliet, consists of three distinct parts. The first part—the longest—is the hilarious recitation of the interviewees’ interpretations of the play. Once that’s over, in my opinion, the play should have ended. The second and third parts, unfortunately, are troubling and don’t really take us anywhere. It’s almost as if Liska and Copper are struggling to find a way to end the piece, and that wrapping it up with the interviewees’ recollections wasn’t quite enough. (Don’t even ask about the giant chicken that comes up from under the stage between some monologues. It’s hilarious, by the way.).

Ultimately, Liska and Copper concoct a somewhat boring exchange between Ms. Gridley and Mr. Johanson about subjects like “neediness.” Strangely, the actors even comment on their views of acting and even on the very enterprise in which they’ve just engaged:

ANNE

…Like I think if – I think if an actor is CONSTANTLY involved in projects that – he is making a sacrifice – himself because he doesn’t believe in the project, he doesn’t –

BOBBY

Or just wants to be loved!

ANNE

- Or thinks – he thinks it’s mediocre! He thinks it’s beneath his talent! But he keeps doing it and doing…

Why would anyone want to include this exchange in the very play in which the actors are performing? This incongruent and dull dialogue continues, nearly unabated, for a full 15 minutes. Once this disaster ends, the production’s creators stillcan’t seem figure out how to end the play, so they turn very serious, going directly to the balcony scene in the real Romeo and Juliet, shrouding the audience in darkness. It almost works, but not quite. It’s too awkwardly juxtaposed to the previous exchange and it ultimately seems like an afterthought.

Why not trust the interviewees to end the play, rather than simply use them as laughingstock? They may not have been sophisticated but they sometimes uttered, perhaps to even their own amazement, something universal and quite profound. Had I been struggling with the play’s ending, I might have simply turned back to the wobbly Bobby in Monologue #6:

“She POISONED herself! And EVERYONE is sad, and they’re like… ‘WHY are we all fighting?!’ It’s all about: WHY ARE WE ALL FIGHTING?! Why can’t we just – LOVE one another?! I think that’s what it’s all about. Yeah.”

Despite the significant problems in its latter parts, the first hour of the play remains ingenious and unlike anything we have seen in recent theater. For that alone, this Romeo and Juliet is well worth the price of admission.

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