Baileys Harbor — Here’s a tip if you’re attending a Door Shakespeare production of “Romeo and Juliet,” being staged this summer in repertory with “The Tempest”: Come early, and not just because most of the seats in this outdoor theater are unreserved.
Led by composer and music director Matt Deitchman, three musicians — Deitchman on guitar and upright bass, Mack Folkert on guitar and Jacob Schrimpf on clarinet — offer a 15-minute serenade introducing us to the 1930s world of this production while quickly sketching its arc.
Opening with the playfully roguish “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” this ensemble eventually arrives at the fervent declaration of undying love in Irving Berlin’s “Always” — reflecting Romeo’s Juliet-inspired growth from love’s playboy to love’s paragon.
But Schrimpf’s melancholy clarinet undercuts the uplifting lyrics, suggesting that something this good can’t last forever.
It doesn’t. In a twinkle, this trio has moved into a musical version of the play’s famous opening lines, describing the “ancient grudge” between Capulets and Montagues that will soon doom the “star-crossed lovers.” Just after that, close harmony gives way to bitter enmity, as the musicians morph into serving men from Verona’s two rival houses and brawl.
With an assist from fight choreographer Ryan Schabach, they battle with switchblades rather than rapiers: Director Leda Hoffmann might have set this production in the underworld of Al Capone, but she’s also been influenced by the testosterone-fueled, adolescent milieu of “West Side Story.”
A persuasive Romeo
Hence, when we first meet Steven Lee Johnson’s Romeo, he’s obviously less infatuated with Rosaline than with himself.
Describing how hot Rosaline supposedly is to Benvolio (Christopher Peltier, exhibiting impressive stage presence), we realize that both of these would-be men are really teenage boys of the sort some men forever remain: Their talk is filled with bawdy puns and gestures, but it’s also empty.
Aided by Peltier and Jonathan Wainwright’s excellent Mercutio, Johnson remains persuasively young, even after he meets Juliet at the Capulet party — smartly staged by movement director Molly Rhode.
Madly kissing Juliet just feet from the audience even as the dancers fade to an upstage tableaux in his newly inflamed mind, Johnson’s Romeo — impetuous and impatient rather than introspective — isn’t just another actor self-consciously playing out a tragedy that includes some of the Bard’s finest rhetorical flights before “Hamlet.”
Johnson’s Romeo is instead channeling a consuming passion — and consequently as sure as everyone first in love that no one has ever experienced anything like their own wild ride. When this Romeo tells James Pickering’s alternately tough and tender Friar Laurence that the old guy can’t credibly speak about what he’s never actually felt, we know exactly what Romeo means.
One can’t always say the same about Heather Chrisler’s Juliet — a reversal of what one usually experiences, in which Romeo remains something of a cipher even as Juliet comes into her own. But particularly when she is soliloquizing, Chrisler works much too hard and is ultimately too self-conscious to convey a similarly innocent, all-in enthusiasm.
Chrisler fares better in the scenes she and Johnson share, including the crucial balcony scene — itself abetted by Aaron Kopec’s simple but effective set design, used in both plays here this summer: a two-story structure with two sets of stairs surrounding the large, signature maple tree that dominates the Door Shakes stage.
Hoffmann adeptly uses this two-tiered treehouse to speed the action and heighten its contrasts. As the two young lovers enjoy their tryst in Juliet’s upstairs bedroom, for example, Mark Corkins’ imperious Capulet is blithely arranging Juliet’s marriage to Paris (Joe Boersma) down below.
While Juliet’s overmatched Nurse (played by Carrie Hitchcock as silly, simple and sweet) tries and fails to halt Capulet’s plans, Juliet can and does by killing herself, joining her newlywed husband in eternity.
When Corkins’ sorrowing Capulet ends the play by extinguishing his torch in the Capulet tomb, it’s hard to imagine this consummate stage manager ever again trifling with others’ lives, as he and so many characters in this play have routinely done. All of them belatedly and ruefully recognize that their theatrical games have involved unforeseen consequences.
A cool, distant Prospero
As Prospero, Corkins plays another, even more powerful stage-managing father in the Door Shakes production of “The Tempest,” also directed by Hoffmann.
Having lost his dukedom in a coup — in a production where the usurper is his sister (Carolyn Hoerdemann) rather than the textually prescribed brother — Prospero has long been preparing his revenge on the enchanted island where he and a young Miranda (Grayson Heyl) washed up 12 years earlier.
Invoking the powerful magic he’s studied hard to acquire, Prospero unleashes the storm that gives this play its name, shipwrecking his sister and her co-conspirators and setting in motion the events that will culminate in Miranda’s marriage to Ferdinand (Andrew Carlyle), son of a conspirator.
Does such a preternatural ability to alter events corrupt one’s soul? If one were able to not only shape history but also know its outcome in advance, would there still be any relish in living? And will what one creates or mars ultimately even matter, after one is dead?
Such questions haunt every artist and this play, reminding us that one long-standing way to read “The Tempest” is as Shakespeare’s retrospective meditation on his own career as playwright. Corkins makes these questions still sharper by giving us a Prospero even more in control — and consequently more coolly analytical and emotionally reserved — than what we usually see.
This Prospero doesn’t even break a sweat in making magic; the eager-to-please Ariel (an energetic Johnson) and the equally hardworking Caliban (a petulantly resentful Wainwright) do that for him.
Corkins’ Prospero can be prickly or passive-aggressive when these servants or his daughter step out of line.
But knowing as much as he does, this Prospero is rarely surprised and therefore betrays little of what he feels, except through occasional bouts of dry humor or world-weary sorrow as he comments inwardly — and with the trace of an outward grimace — on what fools these mortals are. Corkins’ Prospero comes across as a frequently bored or wryly sardonic soul who has already seen and understood everything — even if life still remains new to others.
Because Prospero operates with such a conscious sense of superiority and distance from a world he’s done so much to create — a lofty vantage that’s reinforced here when he looks down from the upper level of the set — there’s less substance and less at stake in his relations with those around him.
Stuff of dreams and nightmares
As a result, the other characters in this “Tempest” can be reminiscent of the airy “spirits” Prospero famously references as “actors” in the “insubstantial pageant” he enacts. Hoffmann strengthens the comparison by casting four additional actors to play these spirits, who augment Ariel’s magic and give voice to the arresting and ethereal music that’s so important to this play.
One could argue that if every player is really a pawn — the stuff of Prospero’s own private dreams — the resulting drama can’t be as dramatic; it’s hard to take characters seriously when they have so little say in shaping their own destiny.
But one could level the same charge at any of Shakespeare’s late romances, of which “The Tempest” is the purest example. All of them involve flagrantly devised, deliberately comic resolutions to problems besetting a world where, to paraphrase the ending of “R&J,” every story comes filled with woe like that of Juliet and her Romeo.
Viewed this way, one begins to see the method in Prospero’s madness and grasp why Corkins’ Prospero refuses to fully engage the hopelessly screwed-up civilization he’s left behind.
Yes: This Prospero will still play the play and produce the happy outcome Shakespeare’s script demands, thereby allowing Corkins to showcase his splendid vocal instrument and exert his characteristic command of the stage.
But Corkins also never lets us forget that what Prospero is delivering is indeed a production — building toward that late, ominous moment when he tells us that henceforth “every third thought shall be my grave.” As Prospero knows and as Capulet had learned, not all of history’s nightmares can be remade as sweet dreams that resurrect the dead and allow us to start over.
IF YOU GO
“Romeo and Juliet” and “The Tempest” continue through Aug. 15 at the Garden at Björklunden in Baileys Harbor. For tickets, call (920) 839-1500 or visit doorshakespeare.com.