I can always tell when a production hits the sweet spot for me. Words for my reviews start running through my head and I can’t stop them. This week there are TWO such productions which you MUST SEE, both Shakespearean– one a splendid production of his most popular play, and the other a searing one-man show by an actor in love with the bard’s words, but not the filter through which racist culture incarnates them.
This year’s free outdoor Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production on Boston Common is simply ravishing: “Romeo & Juliet.” This rapturous production held us completely in thrall under a crescent moon in the middle of the city with even the nearby church bells eerily in synch with pivotal moments, ringing the heartbreak to come. Gracyn Mix as a sylphan Juliet in white chiffon, and John Zdrojeski as her lanky Romeo capture the giddy joy of young lovers in the first ardent throes of romantic love.
It took me a bit to adjust to Zdrojeski’s goofy charm as the fickle, headstrong lover who suddenly catapults across a crowded Capulet room from Rosaline to the beautiful Juliet. AND just in the nick of time. Juliet’s parents– Celeste Oliva as a vibrant Lady Capulet and Fred Sullivan, Jr. a daunting Lord Capulet plan to marry Juliet off to the perfectly suitable but inconsequential nobleman Paris (Adam Ewer). Dad’s explosive rage at Juliet’s refusal of the match is a towering, terrifying tirade, and among the show’s many high points. Juliet’s nurse played by Ramona Lisa Alexander ignites every scene she’s in with enormous vitality, earthiness, and humor and her facility with the verse is dazzling; she should have a play of her own.
This nurse might have suckled vikings, but here it may be seen that from her this Juliet derives her vibrant warmth, will, and vision. Juliet is wiser than her Romeo, fiery and determined, but also level and sure–and somehow open and innocent too. When Mix’s Juliet takes center stage to wrangle her divided affections and multi-allegiances into some course of action, she is a vision of loveliness in extremis: she glows in the light at the crossroads of her life, thinking aloud as tragic events swirl around her. It’s another stunning moment in a production full of them.
Director Allegra Libonati also bewitches us with her choices. She leaves us cliff hanging just as Juliet’s nurse holds a bloody handkerchief aloft and a bell tolls, and our hearts sink, because we know the action of the play– and Juliet’s heart– is about to split in two. At the beginning of the second half, Libonati recaptures this dramatic momentum by delivering a recap of pivotal lines and moments in a whirl of action, a brilliant stroke, modern and effective. We are back up to speed at the moment when Juliet is about to discover that her new husband has just murdered her beloved cousin and they are all doomed. My heart was in my mouth. SEE THIS. Prepare to be intoxicated. Through August 6 only on Boston Common!
And you MUST SEE Keith Hamilton Cobb’s one man tour de force as “American Moor” now onstage at the BCA’s Plaza Theatre. Cobb, an extraordinarily dynamic and facile actor, wrote and stars in this fearsome excoriation of the insidious ways racism infects our view of the black actor– and by extension all black men in American society. It’s an eye-opening attack on unconscious “Eurocentric” biases, examined through the experience of an actor who shows up to audition for the role of OTHELLO, Shakespeare’s Moor and is asked to accommodate a white director’s presumptive vision about how this role should be played, and ultimately how anyone black should “act” in a culture which does not really see him or her.
Cobb’s first words are “I was an English Major,” and the mild sarcasm embedded in that opening line eventually erupts. Cobb is soon up in our faces and this tiny black box theater is a perfect metaphor for the world in which he finds himself imprisoned. It is also the perfect setting for his way out, via the actor’s ability to re-imagine himself and his world. The actor’s initial bemusement which morphs into outrage, frustration, and hurt at the inability to be seen clearly is painful and provocative. We laugh out loud at the fatuous assumptions he must wade through as self-satisfied directors pronounce on things they know nothing about–and in fact have had a hand in perpetuating–from their privileged perspective. We laugh until we see how corrosive it is.
Cobb’s eloquence and intensity are scorching; it’s clear he could play anyone from Othello to Juliet, Lear to Puck, and indeed his offer to give us his “Titania” is titillating. He does borrow her poetry as he begins “the forgeries of jealousy” speech, then inevitably aims that phrase at the racism which degrades the humanity of us all. A prickly issue is how much of what lies embedded in the western world’s greatest writer’s beauteous text is also under scrutiny. The actor doesn’t take this on directly, though we can surmise he has cut Shakespeare some slack. Othello does rashly murder the one person who sees him for who he is, but Cobb’s revelatory performance unearths tragic flaws far beyond those of Othello’s.
All actors must get to the truth, but Cobb’s premise is that black actors have an additional layer to shed, because they have been forced to see themselves through the warped lens of dominant white culture. “American Moor” relates to anyone who is unseen, unvalued, and marginalized; in other words, all of us, one way or another. This is a deeply challenging piece of work, a courageous performance, and a thrilling evening at the theater. Prepare to be enlightened. I’d love to see his Juliet.
Don’t miss “American Moor” a co-production of Boston’s O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre) and New York’s Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Boston Center of the Arts’ Plaza Theatre through August 12!