Leslie Calvin has been on my mind lately. The Evanston 19-year-old was shot dead on July 4th, and the newspaper coverage and reaction to his murder have sparked an uncomfortable community conversation about young black men, violence and community responsibility. Was Calvin a “notorious” gangster who terrorized a neighborhood, or was he a teenage “baby” and beloved son?
The tragedy is that he was both. I thought about Calvin last night as I was watching Two Pence Theatre’s excellent, spare production of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Evanston Arts Depot. As I’ve grown older, the central love story has become less interesting to me than the parent-child relationships. The current production, staged only blocks from where Calvin died, is an insightful examination of fathers and sons, and the agony of a father’s inability to prevent his son’s violent death.
It may sound odd to describe R&J as about fathers and sons, since the only actual father/son pair in the play never speaks a word to each other. Several characters are father figures, however: Friar Lawrence for Romeo, the Prince for Mercutio and Paris, and Capulet for Tybalt. Each of these “fathers” will attempt to control the violence and impetuosity of his “sons”: Each will fail.
First, a word about Capulet. All too often he’s played as either a buffoon or a raging monster. The Two Pence production wisely portrays Capulet as a strong, essentially good man, driven mad by the chaos around him. The ball scene is particularly revealing: Capulet is working hard to keep things under control while his nephew Tybalt threatens murder. In many productions, Capulet quickly flies into a rage almost as ungovernable as his nephew’s, but here Capulet is more nuanced; he quietly (but firmly) steers Tybalt away from the guests, calmly reasons with him, and only at the very end of their conversation does he raise his voice and threaten violence. Clearly this isn’t the first time Capulet has had to restrain Tybalt.
Yet the exchange is affectionate as well as angry; this is a Capulet who loves his nephew, but can’t prevent him from going down a wrong (and dangerous) path. A few scenes later, when Tybalt’s mad violence has led to his inevitable end, Capulet’s hunched body language says it all: anger, frustration and deep sadness over this wasted life.
Was young Capulet once like the prudent Benvolio?
What does it take to be a Benvolio, the man of “good will”? As in most productions, Benvolio is an active (if ineffective) peace-keeper in the first brawl, although the actor lets him hesitate ever so slightly before throwing himself into the quarrel. Unlike his impetuous friends, Benvolio clearly appreciates the risks involved. As the Mercutio/Tybalt duel approaches its climax, and Mercutio dies, Benvolio attempts to drag Romeo to safety. Yet when the final death match between Tybalt and Romeo begins, there’s a devastating moment when a tearful Benvolio simply backs away from them, throws up his hands and turns his face to the wall. He knows what’s going to happen, and realizes that this time, there is nothing he can do.
That helplessness in the face of violence, and the bitter resignation that follows: We see it in Benvolio, in Capulet, in Friar Lawrence, and in Prince Escalus, as he gazes first at the body of Mercutio and then later at that of Paris. We feel the weight of his guilt as he says, “and I for winking at your discords too have lost a brace of kinsmen.”
Have we been “winking” at discords here?
How do we curb violence in young men? “Good will” is powerless. Demonizing them is pointless and wrong, the “monster” to one side is the “baby” and beloved son to another. (“My brother’s child!” sobs Lady Capulet at Tybalt’s death.) Even lovesick Romeo and upright, by-the-rules Paris eventually mutate into brutal killing machines, their final confrontation a sickening reminder that “good boys” are not immune to the lure of violence.
There are five young men at the beginning of R&J; only one is alive at the end. There are four older men left to struggle with their grief and guilt over all they failed to do. We share their frustration and their fear, for the Mercutios and Tybalts, so quick to reach for weapons at the slightest provocation, the Romeos and Parises caught up in violence against their will, and the prudent Benvolios, careful and lucky enough to survive.
“All are punished.”
‘By Evanston, For Evanston’
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