Romeo and Juliet in Nagoya

Romeo and Juliet in Nagoya

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Address: Chikusa Playhouse

Joe Sichi

Shall I compare thee to a summer cicada? Yeah. Why the heck not. What other creature spends the majority of its life in the darkness tapping into the roots of plants for its sustenance and only a few short weeks in a cacophony of sound, sunlight, moonlight and mad, mad flight. If you’re thinking semi make only one sound, your selling them short. They spend their summer trilling joy songs and love songs, and one suspects even one of tragedy. (Picked one up lately?) Only the swallow matches them in the utter freedom of its flight patterns, and only maidennagoya matches them with productions testifying that there’s more to life than grubbing about in the dark to pay the taxman and the rest of life’s bills.

The crew that brought you “Bent” and “Death and the Maiden” last year is back; bigger, more diverse and with an amazing production. They’ve been working constantly since last December on “Romeo and Juliet”, and to watch them work is very much akin to watching a cicada as it veers and dashes, runs into walls and spins off in tumultuous chatter, finally settling on its blocking and getting down to the real work of what it wants to sing. Let’s take a closer look:
 “You’ve got to spin on your pivot, that’s got to be your left leg.”
 “Why? I’m more comfortable on my right.”
 “That’s a sword at your neck, there’s no way you’d spin towards it, and also look how that leaves you holding your gun. There’s no way you’d hold the gun like that?
 “Why not?”
 “Your character has military training -- 19th century military training. The pistols were heavier too. Here, look. This is how they would have aimed it. Duel style.”
 “Well, what about Tybolt? Would he have held his sword there at my neck? That way? Because if he does then I have to be quick, really quick.”
 “I think he would have, but we had better ask Jeffrey. He knows everything.”
As it turns out, Jeffrey, the assistant director, swordplay coach, and prop genius, to mention only a few of his tasks, does know everything. At least everything relevant to Romeo and Juliet set in the beginning of Meiji Era, Japan. The director, Michael Walker, may not know everything, but adamantly wants to know what each and every character would be thinking, feeling, emoting or saying at each different moment of the two hour play, and moreover he wants to know what they’d really be saying underneath the sweet words at each pinprick point of monologue, dialogue and chorus. He wants the intent behind the words and he demands that each of the actors want to know it too. This drive will allow him to yank Romeo and Juliet right out of fair Verona and plunk it down smack in the middle of Yokohama almost a century and a half ago. It will also allow him to make the Capulets an ex-Samurai family and throw half the play in Japanese. As for the Montagues, he heightens the tension by placing them into the role of Western military advisors. The result?
“… never was there a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Before you get to suspecting: “This is not Romeo, he is some other where.” consider that Juliet is believable floating in her kimono only because the whole production and maidennagoya operate from an organic base, and in fact each production is built from the ground up moment by moment, prop by prop, costume by costume, emotion by emotion, actor by actor, sound guy by lighting crew by quaint argument over how an ex-Samurai really would have spoken to his wife, to his daughter, to his daughter’s suitor. Complexity abounds, but with each individual involved intensely focused, the result is a theatrical outburst and not to be missed.
In Nagoya there will be four shows in November and then entirely new blocking, and a set from the ground up, not to mention the logistics that must be readied and in place for four shows in Tokyo four weeks later. How is any of this possible? The experience of the cast and crew for starters, the devotion of everyone to the commitment, and finally maidenagoya’s insistence on setting its standards high. This is the same core troupe that put on “Bent” to sold out houses in Nagoya a year ago, with the addition of exciting and professional Japanese actors and of course women’s roles. With centuries of combined years of stage experience for the cast alone, and a year to get Romeo and Juliet prepared for its new environment, you can expect to be enthralled, transported to another era, and set down in the midst of hubris, love, pathos and tragedy distinctly real, and just as Shakespeare intended it, (unless that was someone else).
The ongoing controversy about what Shakespeare actually wrote and what he didn’t should be of less interest to us than why his or someone’s characters retain their uniqueness, their distinct comprehensibility, and most dramatically, their ability to engage we who dwell in our modern sea of intractable yet ever-changing flotsam and jetsam. Let’s assume for the ease of the moment that he wrote all of it individually. To remove any drag from the equation, guess that he was learned enough to know which historical realities he was altering as he did so. The maidenagoya premise? It is the dramatic tangibility of the characters, which make Shakespeare (or whoever) work even today. Abstract that essence, throw it into a completely different historical context and further throw half into a completely different language, spend a year to get it right, and like the cicada in summer the stage is yours. There is perhaps no better character to express this than Mercutio, and in his words we find the spirit of maidenagoya (not to mention our semi):
“You are a lover, borrow Cupid’s wings
And soar with them above a common bound.”

Why on earth would anyone go to all this trouble? The simple answer is because with Shakespeare you can, but there’s more going on here. There’s the fulfilling soundness of a challenge to be met. But the language? Shakespeare is also the language. Yes, and that stays, as the solidity of the character Benvolio (played with true depth by Elijah Bonariggo) stays after all these centuries. Okay, well… half of the language stays. Let’s imagine our semi leaving his dry old shell on the ground as he molts and takes to the skies revving up the chorus. He’s different, but the heart is still the heart, and the molting of Shakespeare can’t be pulled off without the experience and the drive to bring life to the life of everyone involved. Juliet is played by Irene Dewald, a professional, trained at the University of London and L’Ecole Theatre International in Paris. Romeo is played by Eden Plaisted, also professionally trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. With over fifty productions between them, the experience is palpable, and so is the drive.

“The ability to create. To create something that can change people.” This simple concept has given Eden his motivation to work with maidennagoya. And Irene? She’s driven by “moments that are just perfect on stage, and there’s no need for explanation.” In this case the theatre is in the round, perfect for our cicada and his mad blocking. And as everyone knows the story, it’s not giving much away to say that Romeo and Juliet’s ardor – not to mention tragic foolishness -- is helped along by Michael Kruse, expertly cast as Friar Laurence, for whom quite literally, as many of you will know from having watched him in “Oodles” of productions: “The play’s the thing.”

What drives Michael Walker, the director and the main engine behind maidenagoya? We’d best let him tell it as we let the semi sing: “Good theater creates a connection between actor and audience that is tangible… great theater elevates it to a deeply powerful exchange of spirit that changes lives. …I wanted to create a level of performance so real that even if the audience couldn’t understand some, or half, or even all of the text, they could still FEEL the dynamic onstage and be affected by it.”

Michael, who graduated from the University of Western Sydney with a Theatre Performance degree, and is an accomplished film and theater actor himself, would be the first to tell you that maidenagoya’s success comes from the simple fact that each and every member takes responsibility for what goes before the audience. Which is why the yearlong group process of working out each and every facet of the play, as well as drawing out the root sap is crucial, and although I’ve painted it as grubbing about in the darkness for a year (or fifteen, or seventeen) this intense process also has a verve and a beauty of its own. This foundation will be felt by the audience, taking in and joining with the swooning flight and vocal dexterity of Shakespeare’s (perhaps?) Romeo and Juliet as played by maidenagoya. Come out and celebrate a breath of life, and afterwards you may well answer Mercutio’s retort: “I see Queen Mab has been with you.” with “Yes, she has, and it was great.”

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Romeo and Juliet in Nagoya
Rome and Juliet