Shakespeare In the Rain

Or, Romeo and Juliet in a Kurosawa rainstorm.
Or, the best play I ever walked out on at intermission.

This was our third attempt to see this play during the 2018 season at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), the attraction that brought us to Ashland yearly for nearly 30 years and eventually to live here. This was a play scheduled for the historic Allen Elizabethan Theater, a traditional outdoor venue. This was also another season of fires. While we had no fires in Ashland, weather patterns sent smoke from various surrounding fires into the valley. The first date we had tickets, the play was cancelled due to the hazardous amount of smoke in the air. The town donned masks, our eyes burned. Our second attempt, once again, hazardous levels of smoke cancelled the play. We decided to give it one more try and acquired tickets late in the season, early October. The day before had been sunny. The day of the play proved rainy off and on. By late afternoon, the rain had stopped so into town for a pre-play dinner we went. We were well-equipped in the event of more intermittent rain, even constant drizzle. We even had a towel along to dry off our seats before sitting down. What we were not prepared for was the torrential rain that followed. Even our row neighbors with their ponchos were still not prepared for the intensity and persistence of the rain. Yet, the players, demonstrating “the show must go on” dedication to their audience and their craft, came out in full costume, no raincoats, hats, or ponchos, full costume and performed the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen. Well, I can at least attest to the best first half I’ve ever seen.

The director, Dámaso Rodríguez, the cast, and crew did Shakespeare proud capturing the complexity of Shakespeare’s plays. A tragedy, as this play is classified, is not always 100% tragic, a romance, is not all cooey from start to finish. Shakespeare’s plays tragedy, history, comedy alike are peppered with humor, be it direct or tongue-in-cheek. There is a richness which, I believe, is one reason his plays are universal and timeless. After all, life is not all tragedy, comedy, or romance. Life is an often fabulous complex mix like bitter and sweet. 

Romeo and Juliet in the first few acts is full of humorous dialog and double entendre. Friends hang out in the street and have a good time together. Last night’s Romeo and Juliet, in spite of being drenched and cold, finally brought the full richness of this play out for me. Sara Bruner stood out as the preeminent Mercutio, and was really at her best in this role.

This director, cast, and crew brought this play to life more than I’ve ever experienced. All this in pouring down rain. In costume, no raingear added, on a stage literally running with water, little waterfalls poured off the stage, bubbles floated on the stage. The brawls included “take downs” in both  merriment, and later in conflict where actors rolled and splashed on this wet stage. Most impressive, without taking anything out of character, the actors embraced the rain. It became part of the backdrop, the scenery, for some even part of their costume, and even a character. There is a humorous bantering scene,  Act II, Scene IV, where the players really shine in bringing the rain in as character, they play with it, include it and, rather than simply sporadic chuckling or smiling and nodding, we, the audience are in full on belly laughter, enjoying the joy, the jokes, the almost slapstick—yes still in character—never before have I felt so included by and close to a group of actors.

Last night’s production made this story so very real—there was a great deal of fun dialog, romping—until, as often in life, one spark of uncontrollable anger, a heated encounter, mixed perhaps even with a dose of bad luck and life as we, or the players, know it stops. Their world shifts and dark days lie ahead. Mercutio lies dead, Tybalt lies dead, Romeo is banished.

The applause as the lights went out signaling intermission was as enthusiastic as end-of-play applause, end-of-outstanding-play applause. A “thank you” for an outstanding performance, a “thank you” and recognition for playing in the torrential rain, an apology for leaving. We weren’t the only members of the audience whose rain barriers had broken down and were soaked to the skin and cold. Regrettably, we had to leave. I applaud my fellow play goers for waiting until intermission to pack it in. I applaud any fellow play goers that chose to stay, and I applaud that cast. That admirable cast. I have long-admired the professionalism, talent, and passion of the OSF players, but never as much as I do now. BRAVO!

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