Back when I used to eat meat*, I had a very simple way of judging the quality of restaurants: order the calamari.
Many to most restaurants offer calamari as an appetizer option. It’s rings of squid, breaded and deep-fried. And it immediately tells me a lot of things about the restaurant; how good the fry cook is, if he’s paying attention or not, how busy the kitchen is, how the chef balances creativity with the expectations of a diner, whether you get seafood sauce from a jar or a delicate house Marinara… even how fresh the lemons are. Calamari is surprisingly easy to screw up; the more you cook it, the tougher it gets. If it’s undercooked, it’s squishy and translucent (and you should call the Health Department). If it’s overcooked, it’s a rubbery exercise for the jaw. If it’s perfectly al dente, you have a tasty appetizer that speaks volumes about the quality of the kitchen and the food that will be coming out of it.
All for under $10.
Theatre season programming being not entirely unlike menu planning**, there ought to be an analogue for calamari; something that would tell you a lot about a theatre company, and permit you, more importantly, to compare it to other theatre companies. And there is (well, somewhat).
Now, I ruffled a feather or two a few posts ago by saying Yet Another Romeo and Juliet. I did not say it lightly; neither did I mean to cast aspersions on the play itself.
Last year, the NAC did Romeo and Juliet. So did Salamander—twice, if not three times. I think someone else did it too, but I can’t quite recall who. That’s just in Ottawa.
As a matter of fact, this March we’ll be treated to Sock ‘n’ Buskin‘s production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Dave Dawson. I was reminded of this (I’d forgot that I’d read about it in the Six Characters in Search of an Author program) when I went to coffee with a friend who mentioned that she had auditioned for it***. She also reminded me of the importance of Romeo and Juliet, and inspired me to design a t-shirt, suitable for wearing to auditions.
To start with, I love Shakespeare more than I let on. I particularly love Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and The Merchant of Venice. I love the texts, I love the characters. I love Shakespeare’s writing; his facility and inventiveness with the language****. I love these plays before they even leave the page and become theatre.
These plays are practically perfect, in the sense that, for example, you could stage Hamlet on a bare stage with no properties or set—even with only one actor, as Raoul Bhaneja has done. And everybody knows if you’ve done it right, because they are familiar, to some degree, with the plays (or at least they may become so rather easily).
For this reason, Shakespeare is very easy to ruin. Cut a speech, flub a line, misunderstand a word, and someone in the audience is going to notice.
Then there’s that awful practice (I am solidly with David Mamet and the gentleman who wrote to J. Kelly Nestruck in this opinion) of adapting Shakespeare. Does Romeo and Juliet really need to be set in space, or in Baghdad? What if the characters were both male, or both female? Well, what if? If it wouldn’t change anything then why do it? And if it would, then it’s not Romeo and Juliet anymore, and if you think you are possessed of sufficient genius to tamper with it, you should do what Shakespeare did; take the old story and rewrite it in your new setting and circumstances*****. But for God’s sake don’t put Macbeth on the Moon, or make Othello an android. These plays are good enough to stand on their own merits. You can play them in street clothing. Seriously.
When done skilfully, these are the core of the best plays in the English language. They have strong characters and compelling plots; even if you know the plot beat by beat, it is still easy (depending on the production) to suspend disbelief enough to be carried along with it—and something that holds your attention even though you know how it will end is the ultimate test of a good plot.
But Romeo and Juliet stands out. Why? There are many reasons why it’s good: it is a love story; it has action; it is quite easy for the audience to identify with Romeo, Juliet, or Romeo and Juliet as a single entity; there is a whole quiver of strong male roles for actors to experiment with, and who doesn’t want to play Juliet at least once? It has a particular historical context, but that’s not as important as its social context. Let’s not even discuss what it says about teen suicide.
In any case, it is so well-known, and so universal, that it can serve almost as a yardstick to judge directors, casts, crew, whole theatre companies by.
Thus, since Romeo and Juliet is the calamari by which you shall be judged, do it right. The best (probably the only) way to do that is to love it, to understand every word of it, and to be true to it.
* For digestive and economic reasons, although it’s nice to know that my meals are decapitation-free.
** I will develop that subject in full in the coming weeks.
*** And, since callbacks aren’t over and done with yet, I shan’t mention who that was.
**** I refuse to believe that Shakespeare was a cabal of writers simply because the average person of his time would not have had the vocabulary, the time, the resources, the specific education… there is such a thing as a genius. It’s not a popular concept anymore—certainly not in academia where people are paying to be certified as educated—we may be born equal in rights but some of us evidently come out of the womb with a shining talent. Shakespeare was such a one.
***** It’s called West Side Story, and I love it to pieces.