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The Playa's the Thing
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William Shakespeare’s immortal tale of the star-crossed lovers speaks to modern hearts more than any other of his works.

It doesn’t rely on witchcraft, as does Macbeth. It doesn’t rely on the foibles of royalty, as does Hamlet. It doesn’t rely on lengthy interior monologues, as does Richard III. It doesn’t rely on mistaken identity, farcical cross-dressing or mythological creatures with fairy dust, as do any number of the Bard’s comedies.

Though written four centuries ago, Romeo and Juliet’s focus on youth, action, street gangs and sex is thoroughly contemporary, with a tightly written plot that moves at breakneck speed toward the pair’s tragic, fatal date with destiny.

The only thing missing is a car chase -- although there are several swordfights.

Unlike the sprawling nature of many of Shakespeare’s plays -- originally intended to provide a full day’s entertainment -- Romeo and Juliet stays tightly focused on the two main characters. And like most modern works of literature, the protagonists are essentially alone -- surrounded by few frills and fewer subplots, their passion alienating them from the outside world as surely as any nameless antihero in any dark 20th century novel.

Most importantly, when you watch the play, always remember that the word “passion” does not mean what pop culture tells us it means.

It does not mean true love or great sex. It does not mean happily ever after.

Passion means suffering.

City Lights Theatre will present Romeo and Juliet in Forsyth Park this Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at 8 p.m. as part of the Savannah Shakespeare Festival.

Ten years ago, I had the honor of playing Romeo to Kelly Blackmarr’s Juliet in the same festival, then held in Telfair Square. I remain awed to this day not only at the beauty of the play’s language, but at the archetypal and addictive power of the narrative itself.

Some critics scoff at the play, saying the youthful main characters are poorly drawn caricatures. A few have gone so far as to suggest that some of the poetry in it is Shakespeare’s idea of a joke -- a parody of certain bad plays of the time.

But the truth is that most of the Bard’s works have some flaw -- Othello is too short, King Lear too long, Titus Andronicus too violent. In Romeo and Juliet, however, Shakespeare appears to have written that most elusive of masterpieces -- a play that’s just as popular with performers as with the audience.

When I played Romeo back in the day, I was, um... let’s just say, well out of my teens, about a decade older than the real Romeo would be. But ten years after his first staging of the classic, City Lights Artistic Director Jim Holt has chosen to put on what he calls an “age-appropriate” version of Romeo and Juliet, meaning that the actors are very close in age to the characters themselves. In fact, the two lead actors are currently students at the Savannah Arts Academy, a local public high school.

I interviewed the director and cast members Nick Holt (Romeo), Eve Butler (Juliet), John Keena (Mercutio) and stage combat expert Chris Soucy (theatre specialist for the Savannah Youth Theatre) April 29 at Jim Holt’s Ardsley Park home.

Connect Savannah: How old are our two lead actors here?

Eve Butler: I’m 16 and Nick’s 14, which is actually kind of the reverse of the characters’ ages. Romeo is supposed to be about 16, and Juliet is 13. There’s actually a line where the Nurse mentions that Juliet will turn 14 in a fortnight.

Connect Savannah: Jim, how did you come to the decision to go with a younger cast?

Jim Holt: Everyone who auditioned read for Romeo or Juliet, even those who came to try out for different parts or those who were obviously not young enough to play the roles. And it became very clear to me very quickly that these two not only knew what they were saying, but knew how best to say it.

Eve Butler: We were on pins and needles for four weeks wondering if we were even going to be in the show.

Jim Holt: Once we cast them, we looked around and saw all these other talented young people who had auditioned, and we said, ‘Well, let’s just use all of them.’ That’s sort of how we came to the decision to make this a more or less age-appropriate production. That also fits well with the whole gang nature of the play, with the Capulets and Montagues.

One thing you don’t have to try and get out of these two is the youthful exuberance that comes from being young and in love. They really know what they’re doing. They’re quick studies who learned their lines right away. They haven’t had their scripts in their hands at a single rehearsal.

Connect Savannah: Eve and Nick are a couple in real life. How long have you two been together?

Nick Holt: Almost eight months.

Connect Savannah: Is it easier or more difficult to act with your real-life partner?

Nick Holt: We’ve been joking about how difficult it’s going to be to pretend like we’re in love.

Eve Butler: It’s definitely easier. It’s more comfortable.

Connect Savannah: There’s a school of thought that says a real-life couple shouldn’t play opposite each other, precisely because the actors are too comfortable.

Eve Butler: That’s not a problem as long as you remember your stagecraft -- projecting so the audience can hear you, not leaning into each other too much, cheating out so everyone can see you. You have to make sure that it’s not too realistic, because realistic doesn’t work in theatre.

Connect Savannah: Both of you have done a lot of shows, but nothing like this. Were you intimidated to have such key roles in such a well-known play?

Nick Holt: Oh, I definitely was. I flipped.

Eve Butler: I was so excited when I got the part. You know, I don’t really feel like Juliet is carrying the show or anything like that. At first she’s very passive. She does a lot of witnessing of other people, of other, more active characters. She never takes action until she goes to the Friar and says she’s going to kill herself.

Connect Savannah: Whereas Romeo is the opposite, very impulsive.

Nick Holt: He messes up everything he touches. Romeo is always getting deeper into trouble, making things worse for himself.

Eve Butler: They’re very complimentary as far as personalities go. In the balcony scene, Juliet has to tell him, wait a minute, this is moving too fast.

Connect Savannah: The play does move fast -- faster than any other Shakespeare play with the possible exception of Macbeth.

Nick Holt: The flow just knocked me over. At first you think this is going to be this drawn-out, long play. But it just goes bam-bam-bam, event-event-event, from the marrying through the confessing to Juliet pretending to be dead. There’s not a lot of fluff.

Eve Butler: The fast pace really helped me with the character.

Connect Savannah: How have each of you prepared for your roles?

Eve Butler: I’ve been thinking a lot about the associations and emotions involved. The challenge with Juliet is that she’s sort of this Everyman character, she comes from a very neutral place. You have to dig deep to find out what’s going to motivate her to take action instead of reaction. In her first scene with the Nurse, she has like two lines. That’s what Juliet is.

Nick Holt: Romeo is sort of this womanizer. When you go to Italy, you can see Romeo on any street corner. Some guy with a tight shirt unbuttoned down to there, so his chest hair hangs out, with a medallion or something and wearing faded jeans, hitting on every girl he sees.

Connect Savannah: I must say that’s a very MTV-generation take on the


Eve Butler: Well, like the line says, “his pump is well-flowered.” Basically it’s like she tells Romeo “you’re not getting any” unless he marries her. If the whole thing about him killing her cousin hadn’t come up, he probably would have lost interest and fallen in love with someone else.

Nick Holt: The odd thing is that his relationship with Juliet is more like love at fifteenth sight. I mean, before Juliet there’s Rosaline, and some other girl and God knows how many before that.

Connect Savannah: How do you reconcile all the death in this show with the love story that it is?

Eve Butler: You know, a lot of people have a problem with this play, saying it promotes teen suicide. But the fact is that Romeo and Juliet don’t commit suicide out of self-motivated reasons, they’re motivated by their love. Romeo doesn’t kill himself because he’s sad, he kills himself because he wants to be with Juliet.

Now we have these advances in health care and technology, and we look on death as something unnatural.

But at that time, death was looked on very differently. In the Renaissance people were dying right and left. Babies were dying all the time. Death was something people were much closer to. Even the Friar doesn’t chide Juliet when she comes to him saying she wants to kill herself. At that time, death wasn’t considered evil -- it was just considered moving on. And that’s what Romeo and Juliet do.

Connect Savannah: At what point do your characters have an epiphany, where they decide to transcend their characters and risk everything for love?

Eve Butler: For Juliet it’s when she finds out Romeo’s been banished from the kingdom for killing her cousin. The whole shock of what’s happened drives her into doing something about it.

Nick Holt: For Romeo that moment is when Mercutio dies. He realizes that all this is a lot more real than he thought. There can be a lot more involved than just falling in love and getting married. At that point, he says, oh, dash it all, and decides to stick with what he’s got.

Eve Butler: Mercutio is so fiercely loyal to Romeo, yet disgusted with him as well. He’s a veteran -- he’s seen horror, he’s seen war. Some scholars have read into Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech that his wife died in childbirth. And there’s his friend Romeo, who’s in love with someone different every two weeks.

Connect Savannah: John, you have the plum role of Mercutio. You get some funny lines, a great speech and a great swordfight. You’re dead by the end of Act One, so you can kick back and relax while everybody else still has to get through Act Two.

John Keena: Yeah, while the rest of them keep whining and carrying on (laughs). I’ve just sort of made myself into this dispirited but basically benevolent nobility. Mercutio is born into royalty, but he’s the second son, so he’s the soldier. Back then the first son got everything -- the money, the title, the land, everything. The second son went into the military, and the third son went into the clergy. And I guess the fourth and fifth sons were either killed or exiled. So he has these wounds on his soul from the war, but a very kind spirit.

Connect Savannah: Chris, you did the fight choreography for the first Romeo & Juliet here, as well as several other versions of the same play around the area. How will you keep the swordfights exciting and new for this weekend?

Chris Soucy: You always have to start with the actor and what they’re capable of doing physically. If you have an actor that says, “Hey, I can do backflips,” you’re like, “How about that -- so can Mercutio (laughs)!” Once you do that, you fit the actors’ capabilities with the strengths and weaknesses of their characters. Every fight tells its own story.

For example, in the show that you were in, Mercutio was playful, whereas Tybalt was very stern. For this show, we’ve flipped that. I have Tybalt -- the cat -- playing and toying with Mercutio. His abilities are more fluid. He’s essentially trained in sport fencing. Mercutio has military training, so his style is more soldierly. So we have this juxtaposition of light heart, heavy blade, versus a man with a heavy heart and a light blade. They’re evenly matched.

Connect Savannah: But Mercutio is always destined to lose.

Chris Soucy: In the past everyone’s accustomed to seeing the story of the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt portrayed as a tragic accident, one that’s entirely dependent on Tybalt’s rage at Mercutio getting the better of him.

Connect Savannah: So much so that Tybalt is usually depicted as having to “cheat” to win.

Chris Soucy: Yes. But we’re telling it so that the way the fight ends up is a result of Mercutio’s inability to accept that Tybalt is the better fighter. I’m portraying Mercutio as a heavy gambler, basically what we’d call today a gambling addict. So instead of cutting his losses when he realizes he can’t beat Tybalt, he does what gamblers do: He doubles the bet and keeps on raising the stakes.

The contest between Mercutio and Tybalt is very much based on the idea of “fools rush in.” You know, had you only tempered your passion with some logic and some reasoning, none of this would have happened. We’ve created these scenarios where at every given point, someone has the opportunity to just say no, to walk away from the fight.

For example, when Tybalt gets the better of him the first time rapier against rapier, Mercutio raises the stakes by coming at him with a rapier and a dagger. Tybalt matches that and beats him again, so this time Mercutio comes after him with rapier/cloak. Then it escalates into rapier/rapier.

Connect Savannah: That’s ambitious.

Chris Soucy: Well, you have to break up each fight into small, manageable phrases. There’s a difference between violence and action. If you just pile violence on top of violence, that’s boring. You have to gradually escalate action into violence. w

City Lights Theatre performs William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Forsyth Park, with performances beginning at 8 p.m. and preshow entertainment beginning around 6:30 p.m.

In-show signing for the hearing-impaired will be offered at Saturday night’s performance.