Anytime a director, in this case Anthony Kokx/Tony Palermo of Gravy Bath Productions, tells you that he is going to toy with or change Shakespeare I break out in a sweat. It is a difficult task to tinker successfully with the works of a master play writer and even doubly so when you decide to tackle what is most likely his best known play in Romeo and Juliet. This task did not seem overly daunting to Tony Palermo and his Gravy Bath actors; they took on the challenge head on. Gayanashagowa is their interpretation of Shakespeare's classic romance of Romeo and Juliet with the insertion of a Native vs. Europeans twist. Instead of the tale focusing solely on the battle between the two warring families of the Capulets and the Montagues the idea or reality of the battle being over land that the Natives wanted to keep and that the Europeans wanted to exploit. The basic premise is the same; it is about two sides who don't get along and we (and they) are really not sure why.
Palermo wanted this play to be more of a story than a prototypical play. To achieve this he and his 25 actors started rehearsing the play, which lasted for 8 months, with no actual script. They improvised, battled, changed things, swapped ideas, and researched both the story and the Native conflicts ending up with their own version of Romeo and Juliet. The end result is the classic romantic tale that is more like Baz Luhrman's 1997 film than Shakespeare's original play. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Everything has been made more modern and more user friendly. The tricky dialogue has been updated into modern English and the story simplified so as to be less mystifying. There's proof that Palermo's play is a modern tale even in the music or score used in the play. Pianist/composer Mark Bond is actually on stage behind black curtains for the most part during the performance and he uses pieces such as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as background music and the character of Juliet (Angela Galuppo) sings Bruce Cockburn's "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" at one point. Interesting interpretation to say the least.
The framework of the production is intended to be the story (and not the play) of Romeo and Juliet, the Native conflict which began in the 1590s and today, 2006. I could see the first and last part of the frame, but where the play was weak was its inclusion of the Native aspect. I could not really see it. If I had not read about this aspect beforehand I would have remained in the dark about it. There are some vague references to borders and land disputes, but that could have been reference to any number of cultures or countries. Israel and the Palestinians? The Irish and the British? The Greeks and the Turks? The simple insertion of a short passage in Mohawk or that the Montagues (who were the Native side) sat in circles were not enough to make it clear. I think that Palermo and his actors should have stuck with the idea of feeling 'different' coupled with forbidden love and not tried to drag in the Native (or any specific culture) aspect into it. The idea was to show the differences between the two cultures but I did not see it or feel it.
The acting in the production was good with Lindsay Pierre as Mercutio (who sadly dies before intermission) standing out. Anytime he was on stage your eyes and ears were riveted to him. His presence and voice were great. Though the cast is a large one (25 actors) many of them do not have any lines, as such, but they do contribute to the play through the Sharks vs. the Jets rumble/fight scenes and some interesting choreography. The youthfulness of the cast is definitely exploited by Palermo as there are several high energy fight and dance/movement scenes which successfully tell the story through movement. Another interesting aspect of the production is the stage itself. There are not many props used in the production (a single rose) and the stage itself is quite sparse, but the ingenious use of black sheer curtains and a raised second level at the back of the stage (used for the famous balcony scene and a place for the 'spirits' of Romeo and Juliet) really add a depth to the play.
There are moments within this ambitious production that it is very successful and fewer not so successful moments. Palermo's motto is "never stop trying" and I hope he continues along this vein and keeps pushing the envelope. Trying new things, whether they are entirely successful or not, is exciting, not only for the person doing it, but also for us the audience. Go and see Gayanashagowa and reward an innovative and experimental director and troupe for having the guts to try something different with a William Shakespeare classic. Gayanashagowa is playing at Monument National from August 15th until the 26th.