“Romeo is sweating like a dog, and you can see his spit!”
My wife whisper-shouted these observations to me last Friday night during the Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. I smiled at the details that struck my own true love, but didn’t respond with the obvious. All actors sweat on stage, you see, and they all spray a little when they say the word “passion” with passion. But only when seen as intimately as we were able to witness this particular performance — and under the stars, mind you — do body fluids become part of the drama.
I’m no theatre critic, but I’m an absolute Shakespeare addict. Credit goes to the right emphasis — passion — from a couple of high school teachers, then a college course that illustrated the breadth of interpretation for any of the Bard’s work. Whether it’s a morose Mel Gibson or a love-struck Leo DiCaprio, Shakespeare on film tends to wrap plot and language around me in a fashion many Oscar winners cannot.
But on stage. The way it was meant to be performed (and seen). I consider live Shakespeare among the four or five experiences that make the air taste sweeter. Just as the arrival of the Memphis Redbirds in 1998 lifted spirits of St. Louis Cardinal fans throughout the region (I’m one of them, too), Tennessee Shakespeare Company (TSC) instantly made life in the Mid-South better for Shakespeare fans when it premiered with a 2008 performance of As You Like It at St. George’s Church in Germantown.
The TSC trick, of course, is making a production an actual part of Memphis, finding a location like St. George’s or the Dixon that is distinctively home for many of us, then presenting the beauty and grandeur of Shakespeare as though it was meant for the setting. As though a porch roof at the Dixon has forever been the balcony from which Juliet calls for Romeo.
And what a production. Wolfe Coleman as Romeo does indeed sweat as he struggles against his name in the hope of landing a woman who “doth teach the torches to burn bright.” Carey Elise trades an ounce of melancholy for a pound of sass as Juliet, falling in love as a 14-year-old might be expected to. There’s excitement, giddiness, even euphoria . . . until Dad gets in the way, of course.
Slade Kyle steals several scenes as Romeo’s buddy, Mercutio. And Matthew Crewse as Juliet’s loyal nurse manages an infusion of humor for a role that is easily sidelined when not treated with the care TSC shows.
There was an eerie quality to the performance last Friday night. Midway through, I looked up at the trees on either side of the Dixon and the leaves were perfectly still. Considering the violent weather we’ve endured over the last few weeks, Mother Nature seemed to be pausing herself for a couple of hours, long enough to absorb the language and action of a brilliant show. One that deserved her attention, too.
You can still catch the star-crossed lovers (rain or shine), as the play will be performed through this Sunday (May 8). Call the TSC at 759-0604 or visit tnshakespeare.org.