In its new performance piece, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma continues its obsessive interest in the way people unwittingly reveal themselves through the language of storytelling. The story being told here is “Romeo and Juliet,” hilariously refracted through the shaky memories and personal prejudices of company members who submitted to a funny and pointed questionnaire about the play. As rendered in the company’s distinctively robotic style by two performers (with a third, Elisabeth Conner, as a chicken), Shakespeare’s eternal tale of ill-fated young love becomes an outlet for the fears, frustrations and longings of creative sensibilities bashing their heads against a wall.
Anne Gridley, encased in ghastly orange gown and matching coronet, and Robert M. Johanson, stuffed into cruelly tight tights, present themselves for sacrifice on a small, bare stage; they alternate in delivering excerpts from these interviews.
Bug-eyed from the mental exertion of having to reconstruct the storyline of a play they barely remember from high-school productions or movie treatments, the correspondents simultaneously flail their arms and trip over their own thick tongues.
As executed in the company’s deadpan comic style, many of these garbled versions are flat-out hilarious. Unable to distinguish between Tybalt and Mercutio, uncertain about who said what to whom in the balcony scene, and utterly baffled by Friar John’s function in the play, the storytellers desperately draw on their own feverish imaginations to fill in the blanks.
Juliet strips naked for a softcore bathing scene in one of these rewrites. Romeo kills Juliet’s brother in another version. The Capulets are “sort of the hipsters of the town,” and their feud with the Montagues escalates into a war.
The made-up dialogue is even funnier. “What light through yonder window speaks?” demands one narrator of the plot. “It is the East! And Juliet is the West!”
As amusing as these mash-ups are, what makes them touching are the frustrations felt by the storytellers as they struggle to articulate emotions the play stirs in them. “I don’t remember who does the fucking ‘Queen Mab’ speech!” someone cries out, in a voice of genuine distress. Someone else keeps wringing her hands over the loss of her mental powers. “I have no brain anymore,” she wails. “I flunked the test. I’m getting confused.”
Even when they get the facts straight, they become unnerved by the fragility of their own minds. “They end up both dead,” someone triumphantly concludes. “Unless that’s ‘Hamlet.'”
A few of the correspondents remain undaunted by their forgetfulness, courageously making up a story that corresponds to issues meaningful to them alone. One narrator insists on finding parallels to the life and death of Anna Nicole Smith. Another rails against the play’s theme of self-sacrifice. (“I’m not big on self-sacrificial type things.”)
And here’s where Nature Theater of Oklahoma shoots itself in the foot. (Or is it poison or a sharp blade that does them in?) Although as many as 10 voices speak out in this piece, none has any individuality. It’s language and voice, not character, that fascinates this company. And while the monotonous performance style yields plenty of laughs, there’s something heartless about the work process that lingers long after the words are forgotten.