by Suzanne Karpinski · November 16, 2014
I was intrigued. The production is billed as “giv[ing] the audience an opportunity to choose how this legendary story unfolds. Each night we will ask our audience a number of questions before the show which will determine which direction and interpretation the performance takes.” Many of us have seen Romeo and Juliet before, but how much fun would it be to turn the knobs and dials on a show we think we know and see what happens? Onomatopoeia Theatre Company is looking to do just that with Inspecting: Romeo & Juliet.
Upon arriving at the theater, there is a blackboard where each character is listed, and next to their names are two descriptive words. Is Romeo peaceful or aggressive, for example? The board asks the audience to put a check under which they think it is. For each character, the checks are tallied, and accordingly, the actors are to tailor their performance to the audience’s opinion.
This is is a tricky gambit, for both the director and the actors. First of all, the audience on this night made sure to pick the most conflict oriented descriptions for each character. Why have a sensitive Capulet when you can have a harsh one? Why make Mercutio fall in love when he can be lusty towards everyone he meets? And surely its more fun if Juliet actively rebels rather than being a passive ‘object of fate’ as the blackboard suggests? Within a few scenes, it became clear that this experiment is not as cut and dried as it seems. Actors were so committed to playing the quality of the description the audience asked for that they no longer could consistently play the action and objectives required in each scene. It became increasingly clear what the danger of reducing a character to a single quality does - it eliminates the possibility of playing others. After all, the richness of Shakespeare’s characters are no doubt due to their complexity, much like the complexity of real life. On paper, the idea of giving the audience a kind of control is appealing, no doubt in part due to the recent proliferation of interactive theater in recent years. However, in practice, this may be an experiment better suited to rehearsal or the classroom than in performance.
There are some strong performances, nonetheless. Lauriel Friedman shines as the Nurse, delivering a clarity of purpose and a playfulness that brought lightness to the classic tragedy. Justy Kosek’s Friar Lawrence has a command of the text and great presence. Additionally, scenic designer Zachary A. Serafin has creatively rearranged the black box space to use the audience risers as an impressive playing area that creates a variety of levels, entrance points and texture while seating the audience in what would normally be the stage floor, giving director Thomas R. Gordon’s staging plenty of room and dynamism that fully utilizes the theater.
Ultimately, the production reveals the nature of the false dichotomies we place on human emotions. It is interesting to see the result of focusing on single aspects of our behavior, but ultimately, the truth lies somewhere in between