Tonight I saw Synetic Theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
Synetic Theater is a small theater company in the DC area that produces wordless plays — which means they rely heavily on dance, pantomime and other physical storytelling. It’s an interesting concept, especially when they do Shakespeare, because it raises the question of whether a play can properly be considered a “Shakespeare” play when there’s none of his text. The answer may be fairly straightforward for a play like Romeo and Juliet, which is so quintessentially Shakespearean, but less obvious when you’re dealing with a history play like Antony and Cleopatra, which I saw them do last year — the tale exists independently of Shakespeare, so if you remove the words you just have a dance based on historical events, right?
Aesthetically, the plays feel like a cross between a low-budget Cirque du Soleil show and a modern dance concert with ambitions and personalities that exceed its talent. Which sounds like a criticism (and it kind of is), but there’s also something charming about the sincere passion that you see in the actor/dancers’ performances. Sure, the acting can be overwrought at times, and the costumes a tad chintzy — not to mention the choreographer who gives herself prominent dance solos more often than is warranted by her role (she was the nurse). But there is also a lot of creativity, and despite the lack of overall polish some lovely moments emerge that are well worth seeing (which is saying something when you consider how hackneyed the story of Romeo and Juliet can be).
For example, I loved the scene in which Romeo and Juliet see each other for the first time after Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet’s kinsman. Both of them were very upset by what had happened — she grieving the loss of her relative, he in anguish over having killed the man, and both clearly uncertain about what is going to happen to their relationship. The scene ended up being much more of a scene of forgiveness and reciprocal comforting than I’d seen in other productions of R&J. The relationship, which so often strikes me as youthfully impulsive and superficial, suddenly seemed deeper and more mature for having weathered that tragedy.
The other scene I liked was in the mausoleum, at the end. Romeo’s dead, Juliet wakes up; normally she sees his body and kills herself on the spot. Here though, the friar arrives before she awakens. He panics when he sees Romeo’s body and shields Juliet from seeing it, too. It isn’t until they’re leaving the tomb, when Juliet sees Paris’s body, that she suspects something might be wrong and looks back to see Romeo (at which point she runs back and kills herself; the priest looks on in horror and then runs away). It’s not a completely plausible scenario (surely the friar would have intervened), but the variation gave the scene an interesting twist by prolonging Juliet’s rejuvenation before having her go back under.