“Romeo and Juliet”
7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 28. $12-$28. New American Shakespeare Tavern, 499 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-874-5299, www.shakespearetavern.com
By Wendell Brock
Jeff Watkins remembers the first time he saw Juliet. It was love at first sight.
He was a 13-year-old kid living in Dallas. When his big sister wanted to go to the movies, his mother made him tag along. It was Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and he was transported.
“I had no idea what I was going to see, just coming in cold,” says the artistic director of Atlanta’s New American Shakespeare. “And then there it was. And there she was. It was Olivia Hussey. I mean, the eyes, the hair, that red dress, the décolletage, the whole thing. … And then you had the sword fights. That movie blew my mind.”
Watkins says flat out, “We would not have a Shakespeare Tavern were it not for Zeffirelli’s movie.” Four decades later, the tale of fatal love in fair Verona has become a Tavern mainstay. “Romeo and Juliet” has been in the Tavern’s repertory for 11 straight seasons and for the last nine years has filled its February slot — making it as essential to the city’s Valentine’s Day traditions as roses and chocolate.
The story of the Capulets and Montagues sells at 90 percent capacity, and a Valentine’s Day table for two has been known to fetch as much as $550 in a frenetic, last-minute eBay auction.
Watkins says he loves the Valentine’s Day action. “I get to meet 1,250 hopeful young men who are bringing their dates to the Shakespeare Tavern. I don’t really want to tell them that it doesn’t end well.”
The tragedy’s popularity with high-school English classes has been a major factor in its longevity at the Tavern. The theater’s student matinees will bring in about 4,200 students, Watkins estimates, while another 3,900 patrons will attend the 16 evening performances.
Mary Russell, the Atlanta actress who plays Juliet, was a senior at Cobb County’s Pope High School when she saw her first Shakespeare play, a Tavern production of “The Tempest.” Reading Shakespeare had been “very difficult,” she says. But when she saw it live, “I could understand what was going on, and it was fun and it wasn’t hoity-toity.”
At the Tavern, audience members sit in a cabaret-style setting, with tables nearly bumping into the stage. The actors play directly to the patrons, egging them on as they ham it up. That relaxed approach is part of the Tavern magic. “It’s not a museum piece to us,” says Russell, who plays opposite Lee Osorio’s Romeo.
When a teenage Watkins fell in love with Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” he played the sound track repeatedly. “I had a hi-fi, and I would stack the records up, side one and side two. And I would sit there and I would listen to it over and over.”
With year after year performances of “Romeo and Juliet,” you might wonder if they don’t have the same rote quality. The artistic director admits that keeping it fresh isn’t always easy. But he says the theater has a “sacred responsibility” to perform the play “without cynicism, and to approach it with purity and to mean it — every time we do it.”
In many ways, his future depends on it.
“For a great many young people this year … it will determine what they think about any kind of live performance, because this is their first experience with something that isn’t on the tube or on the screen,” says Watkins, who has directed “Romeo and Juliet” seven times. (Education director Laura Cole stages this year’s production.) “Whatever it is that might get in the way of me being all I can be as a director, then it’s my deficiency, not the play’s.”
“It was a pure and beautiful rose when I found it. That hasn’t changed.”