SEPTEMBER 2019 | Volume 183
A Tender Thing by the National Theatre’s Ben Power imagines that Romeo and Juliet have survived Shakespeare’s play into some version of middle or old age. In this two-hander the characters speak a mash-up of verse from Romeo and Juliet, including Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech and parts of his dying soliloquy, as well as lines from the sonnets (“Time will come and take my love away”) and a song from Twelfth Night (“Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”)
Opening United Players’ 2019-20 season, A Tender Thing comes with excellent pedigrees, directed by Sarah Rodgers and starring Shakespearean veterans Denyse Wilson and Troy Skog. But as sometimes happens (not often with United Players shows), I just don’t get it.
I could find no identifiable setting for the play, little plot, no real characterization, almost no conflict, and no added value to its recontextualization and reorganization of Shakespeare’s dialogue. No explanation is offered as to how or why the characters survived the events in the tomb at the end of Romeo and Juliet, or where they are now. It appears not to be fair Verona but rather some kind of limbo. R. Todd Parker’s set is ghostly white with torn cloth pennants over stone slabs reminiscent of the tomb.
Much of the play’s 70 minutes consist of R&J’s words of love to each other until finally there are two revelations. Juliet reveals that she still grieves for their daughter who died (no details provided and nothing comes of it). Then (spoiler alert!), Juliet clutches her side: now she is dying, of some unspecified cause, painfully. She wants Romeo to assist her in ending her life. He resists, then agrees, but with the proviso that he will accompany her.
Wilson’s Juliet seems quite a bit younger than Skog’s Romeo. She does a nice job with the verse, glows with the joy of her continued love for him, and at least has a little something to work with: her grief and pain. Skog plays his love for Juliet convincingly but struggles to sustain the kind of abstraction with which the script lumbers him. And he tends to sort of chant the verse rather than simply speak it.I wish I could have found a way into the story to engage with these characters. But there was hardly any story to assist that engagement and not much in the way of characters. Besides a dead child, what has happened to these two in the 40 or 50 intervening years? A Tender Thing seems more like a theatrical tone poem than a play, Julie Casselman’s music buoying up the characters’ emotional exchanges. But from where I was sitting, there was no there there.
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