Al Pacino is in the news again because it’s the 45th anniversary of the release of The Godfather and Pacino will forever be identified as the character Michael Corleone.
However, for almost all of his life as an actor on stage and screen, Al Pacino has had another perennial quest in mind. Like innumerable other performers (in theater and on film), Pacino has wrestled mightily with Shakespeare. In fact, back in 1996, in a documentary titled Looking For Richard, it was Pacino’s goal to assess as best he could (and share with movie audiences) just how heavily the Bard still weighs on the shoulders of anyone seriously committed to acting.
For male actors, going all the way back to John Barrymore and then up to Richard Burton and certainly in our time as well, the most daunting of questions has been: “Can he play Hamlet?” And for actresses, there’s an equally daunting question.
That is: What to do with Juliet? Only her first name is required. Even separate from the storyline of Romeo and Juliet, her mystique is so powerful that merely hearing the name “Juliet” sets off a sequence of mental images and theatrical fantasies.
Several years ago, a major motion picture titled Letters to Juliet reinforced this. A romantic comedy set in Verona, Italy, with a title like that? It could only be inspired by the lovelorn, tragic, teenage heroine of Shakespeare’s most famous love story – and it was enhanced by the fact that from all over the world, day in and day out, people truly do write letters to Juliet and post them to Verona in an effort to find true love by having their letters on display in the vicinity of Juliet’s Verona balcony.
If you’re now silently saying to yourself: “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” then you’re in league with millions of others. Juliet has been patented, and almost set in stone.
Until Kalista Tazlin radically reinterpreted her during five New York performances of Romeo and Juliet as imagined anew. And I mean “imagined anew” as if Lady Gaga teamed up with Anais Nin and asked Twyla Tharp for some input.
It happened at the end of last January at the historic Flamboyan Theater in New York City. Shakespeare’s Juliet was reconfigured (to say the least). And she was reinterpreted. But, most of all, she was duly revived for 2017 with the use of a live camera feed on stage (operated by the Prince, no less).
This unique effort to present a bold new Romeo and Juliet was galvanized by Kalista Tazlin and Jaime Lubin, both of whom are actresses who seem able to do almost everything else. They aspire to careers in theater, films, and television.
What they accomplished for a five-night run at the Flamboyan is no small feat. They gender-swapped roles and the audience was treated to Jaime Lubin’s female emergence as Mercutio. The warring households of the Capulets and the Montagues were powered by matriarchs, instead of patriarchs. And in the role of Juliet, there was Kalista Tazlin, brazenly performing some of Shakespeare’s most beloved, oft-quoted lines while sensually ensconced in a bathtub fit for 2 lovers.
It’s no accident that Kalista Tazlin stole the show. Educated worldwide and culturally swept from Cambridge to Paris and now at home in New York, it’s not hyperbole to use the word “dynamic” to describe her. In the company of a robust ensemble and running the risk of altering the character of Juliet in ways that bordered on R-rated flourishes, she upended all the clichés that have clung to Juliet like musty old costumes. Instead, Tazlin presented a visceral, sexually expressive, assertive, in-control type of Juliet. And thus the storyline utterly shifted.
This was no passive, timid, moonstruck Juliet who felt she had no choice but to kill herself. Instead, the essence of Juliet was transformed and the audience was invited to consider a different sense of Shakespeare’s heroine as an archetypal heroic lead.
It’s a shame that due to Equity rules and regulations, this unique production could not be filmed for potential PBS screening (or some other televised presentation).
I confess: Most of the time, when attending a performance of a Shakespeare play, I’m inclined to leave during the Intermission. But an early exit never occurred to me. That’s when I realized what had actually happened.
As co-produced, reinterpreted, and presented by Jaime Lubin and Kalista Tazlin, the ostensibly predictable Romeo and Juliet received the benefit of Ezra Pound’s advice.
A century ago, poet Ezra Pound exhorted all artists to “Make it new.”
Excellent advice – then and now.
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