“Two houses, both alike in dignity . . .” OK, stop right there. There is little that’s dignified, though much that’s amusing, in the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Romeo and Juliet, a vernacular version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. In place of iambic pentameter, the script supplies low-diction renditions of the play’s events. On finding the corpse of Juliet, the Capulets remark, “Oh, holy shit. So sad. Our daughter’s dead.” Occasionally a line from Shakespeare sneaks in, but only in travestied from: “What light through yonder window speaks?” or “Run fast, you fiery-footed steeds.”
Nature Theater’s founders, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, derived the play from phone conversations with nine friends, all of whom answered the question, “Can you tell me the story of Romeo and Juliet?” Some of their colleagues remember the play quite well, others freeze up and protest that they recall West Side Story far more clearly. Nearly everyone has some confusion over who takes the sleeping draught, who sips poison, who commits suicide with a sword. A few versions prove particularly inventive: Juliet has a brother? Romeo sings?
Here, as in previous works, such as Rambo Solo and No Dice, Nature Theater strives to elevate everyday speech to the lofty perches of high art. They tart up ordinary language with high-falutin’ pronunciations and encourage actors to declaim it with fruity voices and grandiose gestures. In Romeo and Juliet, actors Anne Gridley and Robert M. Johanson (dressed in tight-fitting, semi-Elizabethan drag) milk plentiful laughs from their exaggerated delivery of quotidian dialogue, waving their arms and screwing up their faces as they utter, “Something or something and you are the sun!” If the piece lacks the poignancy of some of the group’s earlier works—the heartbreak born of the gap between deep feeling and deficient speech—it nevertheless provides an amiable evening. “Never was there a tale of more woe”? Yeah. Not so much.