Does This Play Make You Horny?

Of course not: Its Romeo and Juliet

We should all need a cigarette after the curtain falls on the corpses of Romeo and Juliet. We've just experienced vicariously perhaps the most famous case of near-simultaneous orgasm, but instead of reaching for Joe Camel, most productions send us lurching toward the exits, happy to have survived another dreary staging.

The reason most Romeo and Juliets fail to engage isn't just that most contemporary actors can't handle the complexities of Shakespeare's language. It's that the productions don't come close to capturing the roller coaster of fevered emotion that is at the pounding heart of this play, a blood-engorged pulse motivated by two teenage lovers overwhelmed by their desire to shag, baby.

Shakespeare Orange County's production of Romeo and Juliet, which launches the eighth season of the county's only company devoted to the classics, is a competently told version of the idyllic romance between star-crossed, naive lovers. But I'm not sure that's Shakespeare's real play. Seems to me it's a ravishingly written ode to fucking by one of the most sexually oriented dramatists of all time. Perhaps the fact that it features as the lead a 13-year-old girl is why this play is rarely perceived as such. That's understandable but a shame. Because the high school English-class emphasis on the innocence and poetic purity of Romeo and Juliet overshadows the fact that this may be the most intense, artfully structured play about busting one's nut ever written.

You want evidence? In the play's first 20 lines, there are references to thrusting maids to the wall, pretty pieces of flesh and women being the weaker "vessels." On Romeo's first entrance, he moans about a girl who has "strong proof of chastity" and will "not be hit with Cupid's arrow." Sounds kinda phallic to me. Juliet's speech shortly after her forbidden marriage is one of the most hot and bothered in Shakespeare's fairly hot-and-bothered canon. It's peppered with images of stainless maidenhood, bated blood, buying a mansion of love but not possessing it, and her realization that "though I am sold" she is "not yet enjoy'd."

But the overt sexual references aren't meant solely for poetic titillation. The thematic crux of Romeo and Juliet lies in the fascinating nexus in which sex unites life and death. Allusions to night and death and conception and birth are strewn throughout the play—often in very creepy ways. In the tomb, Romeo sees his apparently dead Juliet, notices her complexion is still fair, and wonders whether "Death is amorous" and is keeping her "here in dark to be his paramour."

When Shakespeare's characters talk of dying, they're usually using the Elizabethan euphemism for orgasm. In Shakespeare's time, every orgasm was seen as—shades of Kubrick's Jack D. Ripper—draining the precious life fluids from a man's body. (What an orgasm meant to a woman is less clear; than again, it was a man's world, so did women even enjoy sex? And if they did, did anyone care?)

But reducing Shakespeare's writing to simple physiology seems a bit cheap. Maybe the connection between life, death and sex has something to do with the fact that, back in those God-fearing days, when masturbation, contraception and homosexuality were considered sins, every legal orgasm carried with it the hint of death, since everything that is conceived is fated to die. In that vein, the play's ending, with our lovers killing themselves, is a sublimely powerful visual expression of mutual climax.

A play that blends life, death and sex in its plot and imagery covers a lot of exciting ground, from the heights of teenage carnality to the lows of cold corpses in a dark tomb. Yet rare is the production that captures either extreme. This play should feel exuberantly alive when the characters are most alive: during the whirlwind courtship that captures as well as anything ever written the wild, magical feeling when the world falls from beneath our feet and we find ourselves spinning uncontrollably around the soul of another person. Rarer still are those productions that make us care so deeply about Romeo and Juliet that the tragic ending feels as heartbreaking as it should.

The difficulty of the play is borne out by Shakespeare Orange County's current production. Rather than focusing on the youthful horniness of the script, this staging casts Juliet and her Romeo as a couple of teenagers smitten but hardly slain by each other. While there are a few sparks, there is no fire. That lack of combustion means that, once again, we get a Romeo and Juliet who seem to be done in not by their own headstrong, rather selfish passions, but by cruel parents and a reactionary social order represented by the warring households of the Capulets and Montagues. That anti-status quo sentiment is always appreciated, but I'm not sure it's borne out by Shakespeare's script, since no one except Tybalt, the resident prick of the play, seems to get truly worked up about this so-called war.

Where director Thomas F. Bradac's staging feels the freshest is in his direction of Romeo (Graham Sibley). This Romeo is a gangly youth possessed by nervous fits of energy. He may lack the charisma and gallant nature needed to sweep Juliet off her feet, and I never bought into his sexual hunger for her, but his spontaneous exuberance fits well with Bradac's brisk pacing. Erin Byron's Juliet is strong and believable, but she comes up short in terms of playfulness, curiosity and fear. This is a 13-year-old who loses her virginity, defies her parents, faces the prospect of waking up alone in a ghastly tomb, and contemplates plunging a knife into her heart. All in five days. Byron's Juliet never seems that intimidated by these huge choices.

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