What's in a name? By any other, "Romeo and Juliet" would be as sweet.
Leonard Bernstein, after all, set the drama in the Bronx and called it "West Side Story." In "Shakespeare in Love," it was given the working title of "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter," and it still held up.
Heck, you could even take your cue from "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and call it "One Wedding and Four Funerals." People would still get the idea.
This is a story that, unlike its doomed hero and heroine, has a way of surviving.
"Romeo and Juliet" is most people's introduction to Shakespeare. We hear the phrase "star-crossed lovers" applied to everyone from the Kennedys to J.Lo and P. Diddie. Everyone can quote "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?" And speaking of Romeo, his name has come to mean "lover boy."
That's why Saul Elkin, directing "Romeo and Juliet" for Shakespeare in Delaware Park, knows what he's up against. Rehearsing the famous "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" balcony scene with Kristen Tripp Kelly, who plays Juliet, he warned her that as she romances Romeo (Christopher Young) she might find herself with unsolicited backup. "Everyone knows the song," he cautioned. "They're going to be singing along."
Just so it's not the same old "Romeo and Juliet," Elkin has planned a few surprises.
Music alert! Tom Makar, music director for the Delaware Park Shakespeare series, has written a new theme for the production.
Action alert! Elkin is streamlining the drama, playing up the fact that the play's events span a mere four days. At one point - the chaotic moment after Romeo has killed Juliet's cousin, Tybalt - two scenes happen on stage at once, as two different groups of characters discuss the death.
Finally, the whole drama unfolds in the form of a flashback. "We start with them dead," Elkin says. "It's not about the surprise of the death," he adds, acknowledging that we all know how the story ends. "It's how they got there."
"E-mail and the friar'
Seated at a sunlit table one morning in the Market Arcade Building, where Shakespeare in the Park has its offices, Elkin laughs as he remembers a few performances of "Romeo and Juliet" he has known and remembered. He's joined in his reminiscences by Neil Garvey, the president of Shakespeare in Delaware Park, and by the Belfast-born actor Derek Campbell.
Campbell, the associate director of the Irish Classical Theatre, stars in "Romeo and Juliet" as Friar Laurence. Which is, incidentally, a more pivotal part than many might think: The fateful friar marries Romeo and Juliet in secret, and, in continuing the deception, sets the tragedy in motion. As Elkin says: "Two things could have saved Romeo and Juliet," he maintains. "E-mail, and the friar."
Director, friar and president have been living and breathing "Romeo and Juliet" for years.
Elkin's first "Romeo and Juliet," which he saw as a boy before he had even read the play, was a lavish performance. It starred eminent English actors Claire Bloom and John Neville. "There must have been 100 changes of scenery," Elkin says. "They were a gorgeous couple."
"A lovely actor," Campbell sighs, nostalgically, of Neville.
Elkin went on to see Olivia De Havilland play Juliet in New York City. "She must have been 45," he says. Though Juliet is supposed to be 14, he explains, such age differences are common. "Katherine Cornell played Juliet in her 40s."
Certain Romeos, too, have aged well. Elkin is transfixed by the memory of Rudolf Nureyev, then in his 50s, dancing the role of Romeo in Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet."
His performance is captured in a 1966 movie with Margot Fonteyn. And such is his artistry, Elkin marvels, that language is superfluous. "When he does the leaping moves in the balcony scene," he says, "you know what he's thinking."
Franco Zeffirelli's famous "Romeo and Juliet," which came along in 1968, blazed trails by casting actual teenagers - Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting - in the title roles.
Campbell adored the movie. "It still holds up, as clear and nuanced as ever," he says.
On the other hand, the Irish actor takes a dim view of "William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet'," which starred Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio amid a riot of hip-hop music and wild camera action. Though he praises Danes' performance, he laments that she was surrounded by just too much ado.
"It was for kids with no attention span," he says. "It was sensory overload."
A muddled Mercutio
Mishaps have occasionally marred "Romeo and Juliet," though the play is none the worse for wear.
A British "Romeo and Juliet," filmed in 1936, starred Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer. But perhaps the most memorable performance in that film belonged to John Barrymore (Drew Barrymore's grandfather), who played Romeo's witty friend, Mercutio.
"He was a terrible drinker," Elkin explains of Barrymore. "And he looked as if he was in his cups. During his Queen Mab speech, he walked right into the camera. And it didn't look intentional."
Campbell tells the story of a historic British "Romeo and Juliet" that starred Richard Burton - and Winston Churchill, who was in the audience. "As Burton got to each monologue, Churchill would join in," he laughs.
Elkin rolls his eyes, good naturedly. "We might get a little of that, too."
Whatever went wrong in such performances, however, it could be argued that at least the producers adhered to the plot. Over the centuries, that hasn't always been the case.
"There is an early history of Shakespeare plays done with happy endings," Elkin says. "There was a version of "Romeo and Juliet' in which Romeo and Juliet survived."
These plays were the brainchildren of William Garrick, who staged Shakespeare in the early 1800s. Besides retooling "Romeo and Juliet" under happier stars, Garrick also did a number on "King Lear." It ends with Lear going off happily into the sunset with his daughter Cordelia.
Shakespeare in Delaware Park's "Romeo and Juliet" can't promise such a happy ending. But people will always thrill to, as Campbell puts it, "the universal nature of adolescent love."
"For kids, it makes Shakespeare immediately accessible," he says.
Perhaps not immediately. As Garvey says: "It takes about a half an hour to get into the measure of the language, for the ear to get used to what's going on."
But after a while, everyone gets into the Elizabethan mindset. Garvey remembers a "Macbeth" in which a little girl came up to Lady MacBeth at intermission, tugged on her sleeve and asked, "Did you make him do all those bad things?"
As "Romeo and Juliet" unfolds, we'll all experience that same magic as we find ourselves pulled, once more, into an age-old drama. That is, after all, the actors' intent.
"The only way to do these old plays," says Elkin, "is to do them as if they've never been done before."