In which the “Mama” part of the Dreadpiratemama moniker comes into play. In other words, I took a 5 year old to see one of the most famous love stories of all time…and it happened to be her very first live theatre experience.
Why This Play?:
So far, I’ve written on plays that were new to me, so it’s time to dive into a play that I already know well. Admittedly, it’s weirdly intimidating writing about something that everyone else also knows pretty well. What new points could possibly be made that haven’t already been beaten to death?
I picked this week’s play initially because writing about Two Gentlemen of Verona got me thinking of these star-crossed lovers. Also, in my corner of the world, the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival is performing free Shakespeare in the Park locally these next few weeks. The show is Romeo and Juliet, so I figured that was a prod in the right direction to make me go out, experience some culture, and get some writing material.
Little did I know that the last-minute decision to include my daughter on this outing would be one of the greatest theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. I’ll get to that below.
Wait, seriously? Do you not actually know? I usually include this part so anyone who’s not familiar with a play can get a decent plot overview without having to read or see it themselves…but come on. If you don’t know the basic outline of Romeo and Juliet, then you must have somehow managed to have checked out of pop culture for the past few centuries. Even the Mennonites know this story. But should you, dear reader, be the exception to the rule – here you go:
In Verona, there are two prominent families, the Capulets and the Montagues, who have some serious Hatfield/McCoy enmity going on, for very unclear reasons. The whole play even kicks off with a brawl between them just to drive home the point. The Prince breaks the whole thing up, chastising the patriarchs of each clan. Daddy Montague asks his nephew, Benvolio, to discover what’s up with his mopey son, Romeo. Benvolio learns Romeo is in love with someone we never even meet. Ben and their feisty friend Mercutio convince Romeo to go to a party at the Capulet house so they can see Romeo’s lady. At the party, Romeo forgets all about his crush when he sees Juliet, Capulet’s daughter. Capulet’s nephew, Tybalt, sees him at the party and is enraged at his presence. Romeo charms Juliet and they end up smooching. She’s whisked away by her family, and her Nurse informs Romeo that his that her kissy partner is a Capulet. Juliet learns that he’s a Montague. Cue bewildered emoji.
The party’s over, but Romeo has returned to hang out under Juliet’s window. She appears and talks to herself about her devotion to Romeo, despite his family ties. He steps out of the shadows and declares his love. There’s a lot of adorable banter, in which they have trouble saying good night. Early next morning, Romeo asks the Friar to marry him to Juliet. The Friar jumps at the chance to end the war between the two houses. Mercutio and Benvolio meet up with Romeo and tease him about love making him act all funky. The Nurse shows up looking for Romeo, and Mercutio holds court with his bawdy humor. Romeo tells the Nurse to get Juliet to church that afternoon so they can be married. It’s all still a big secret from everyone else.
Later that day, Mercutio and Tybalt circle each other with some verbal sparring. Romeo comes by, and Tybalt challenges him to fight. Romeo refuses, claiming he loves Tybalt as he would a kinsman. Hothead Mercutio steps in to fight instead, and Romeo tries to stop them. Tybalt stabs Mercutio right under Romeo’s arm and Mercutio dies after cursing both their families. Romeo loses himself in grief and kills Tybalt, then curses himself when he realizes what he’s done. The Prince decides to exile Romeo. Juliet hears of Romeo’s crime and opts to mourn her new husband’s banishment over her cousin’s death. The Friar sets up a situation for Romeo in Mantua, and sends him to spend the night with Juliet before leaving. Capulet decides to console his keening daughter by promising his buddy Paris that she’ll marry him later in the week. Who doesn’t love a good wedding feast after a funeral, amirite? Romeo and Juliet spend their wedding night together and say goodbye in the morning. Romeo is off to Mantua, and Juliet is angered and astonished to learn that her father has betrothed her to Paris. Capulet threatens to kick her out of the house if she doesn’t go along with his wishes.
Out of options, Juliet goes to the Friar. Paris is there to set up the wedding and to be generally annoying. When he leaves, Juliet threatens to kill herself. The Friar offers her a sleeping potion that will make her appear dead for a day. He promises to send Romeo a letter to come get her after her family has laid her in their tomb. Juliet makes peace with her folks by “agreeing” to marry Paris. She takes the potion the night before that wedding. The Nurse discovers her the next morning, and all the Capulets mourn.
In Mantua, Romeo is just bopping along until his buddy Balthasar brings news of Juliet’s death. Inconsolable and more than a little crazy, Romeo procures some poison and heads back to Verona to bust into the Capulet tomb. Inside, he finds Paris mourning, and kills him. He takes the poison and quickly dies across Juliet’s sleeping body. The Friar comes to the tomb, since he’d heard his letter never made it to Mantua. He sees Paris and Romeo’s bodies, hears Juliet waking, and urges her to run away with him to be a nun. She refuses, mourns her husband, and stabs herself. Paris’s servant ran for the guard when Paris was offed, and they now arrive at the tomb. The Prince and the lovers’ parents are likewise called in. The Friar explains everything, and everyone is devastated. Enough lives have been lost – the two families finally proclaim peace.
Check This Out:
- While writing this, I definitely listened to Dire Straits. “Hey Romeo, you nearly give me a heart attack.”
- If you’re in the Bay Area, go check out the free Shakespeare in the Park! It’s playing in Redwood City this month, then up in the city (at the Presidio) in September. It’s a fun show and very easy to follow, even for Shakespeare newbies/recalcitrants. The Nurse in particular is AMAZING.
- When my younger brother studied Romeo and Juliet, he was stumped and utterly frustrated. I quietly handed him my battered VHS copy of the Baz Luhrmann movie. He was a bit disappointed that I didn’t have a similarly violent equivalent with a badass soundtrack when he studied Julius Caesar the following year. By the way, the Luhrmann movie is streaming on Netflix.
Thoughts and Themes:
I have all these notes from my reading about destiny prevailing, predominant use of rhyming couplets (not just with the lovers!), and thoughts on why this play is more ingrained in the public conscious than others. However, I’m scrapping it. I’d rather write about my kid.
I met one of my best friends performing in Much Ado About Nothing in college. [Aw, Shakespeare bringing people together!!] We had plans to hang out last weekend, and she jumped at the chance to go see a free play. She also urged me to bring her special little buddy, my 5 year old, Harper. The thing you have to know about Harp is that she is precocious and has a decided flair for the dramatic. I figured we’d go, I’d pack her headphones and audio books in case she got bored, and we could leave early if she got restless. I also gave her a rundown of the plot a few hours before the show to pique interest. What I wrote in the above What Happens section is almost exactly the story I told her, except she requested that the words “kill” and “dead” be replaced with “sent to heaven”.
We spread a blanket out in 90 degree heat and got settled (don’t call CPS – we had plenty of shade, water, and ice packs, I swear!). The kid was instantly won over because audience members got stickers to wear – you got to choose to be part of the house of Capulet or Montague (that’s what we’re rocking in the above pic). The action kicked off. I occasionally would lean down to whisper to her a condensed version of what was happening. She asked questions, mostly along the lines of “Who is that?” or “What are they talking about?” And when I pointed out the County Paris, she offered up this gem, via stage whisper: “Paris is also a city.” I figured by the time we got to intermission that she would be ready to pack in it, but Harper insisted that we stay. I got out her audio book early in the second half, but after 5 minutes she saw Juliet and Romeo smooching in Act III, scene five, so she set it aside to focus on the stage.
I started out the play mostly making sure my daughter didn’t disrupt any other audience members, but I quickly began to relax when I saw how responsive she was to the stage action. She laughed when the Nurse told stories of Juliet as a baby. She attended with wide eyes during the fight scenes, and she grinned and batted her eyes when the lovey parts happened. When we got to Act V and Romeo was talking to the apothecary, she waved off my whispered explanations with, “I KNOW, you already told me about the poison. And I also just heard Romeo ask for it!” Well, excuuuuuse me lady, I didn’t realize you understood iambic pentameter. I, for one, loved the production. Mercutio and the Nurse did a beautiful job making their wordy jokes more accessible through their physical portrayals. Juliet was a solid performance, showing her as an infatuated teenager who becomes an adult all too quickly. And I personally loved seeing female actors in male roles – both in Tybalt and Benvolio. What a cool example for my daughter that talented women are capable of playing any role. Overall, I think theatre is perfect for little kids, who already are willing to suspend belief and let their imaginations run with the story.
Afterward, the actors wander through the audience to answer questions and collect donations. Harper treated them with the exact same starry-eyed enthusiasm with which she beheld Minnie Mouse and Goofy during a Disney vacation. She was stoked to hand over my money, to thrill about how much she liked the show, and to inform Lord and Lady Capulet that she was rooting for their family all along. It’s two days after the play at the time of this writing, and we’ve been playing a stilted version of the Bard ever since, although she’s switched house alliances since then. She has deemed herself “Giuliana”, Romeo’s sister, and she urges her 2 year old brother (a fellow Montague) to chase me around with a stick, yelling “Tybalt, you are naughty!” That’s right, Mama always gets to play the villain. She also came up with an elaborate backstory on how everyone thinks she’s a Capulet (because that’s what her passport says), but she’s really a Montague spy. I seriously do not know where she comes up with this stuff, but it’s a pretty decent first stab at Bard fan fiction.
She’s also asked if we can go see the play again this weekend.
What’s the first Shakespearean experience you had? This clip may have very well been my entry point. Up next week, we jump to another well-worn high school study – Julius Caesar.