Sunday, April 13, 2014

Romeo And Juliet (Independent Shakespeare Company 2014 Production) Theatre Review

I’ve been attending the Independent Shakespeare Company’s Griffith Park productions for several years, and have always been impressed by the talent of this group. The acting, the staging, their style, and their energy and joy make each of their productions a treat. So I was excited to see this company in the more intimate setting of their Independent Studio.

Their new production of Romeo And Juliet features a cast of eight (so there is quite a bit of doubling of roles, while others characters are cut completely), and is presented at a quick pace, particularly at the beginning (though the quieter moments are given their needed time). There are several choreographed moments throughout the production, giving it an interesting feel and style. That tone is set at the beginning, with all of the actors on stage, a book being passed among the cast members. That leads to the Chorus, which is performed by the entire cast, each taking a different line or phrase, until “their parents’ strife,” which is repeated by everyone and leads into a very stylized choreographed fight scene (without props such as swords).

It’s an interesting way to present the opening street brawl, and by cutting Sampson and Gregory, it’s also a way to save some time. The first line of Act I in this production is the Prince’s “Rebellious subjects.” The line is spoken while he stands on top of a chair. The set is very simple, which I appreciate. Upstage there is a brown fence which has two entrances. There are a few chairs, a table and a step ladder (all painted brown) which are used to various effects throughout the production.

Montague and Capulet wear nearly matching jackets (like smoking jackets), the difference being that Capulet’s is red while Montague’s is blue. I like that their similarities are stressed by the wardrobe (bringing to mind the “alike in dignity” line from the Chorus). The Capulet color is red, with Lady Capulet in a red dress, and even the invitations to the Capulet party being red.

As I mentioned, there is some doubling up of parts. Perhaps the most interesting is that the same actor plays both Benvolio and Lady Capulet. Though it is a woman playing Benvolio (Lovelle Liquigan), she is dressed as a man, so it’s not meant to actually be a female Benvolio. She does quite a good job with that character. Benvolio and Romeo wear similar vests. The clothing, over all, is basically modern (Romeo wears jeans and blue sneakers), but with some timeless touches.

The entire cast is basically strong, but the stand-outs are Erika Soto as Juliet and Bernadette Sullivan as the Nurse. Their relationship is really well developed (which adds a lot more power and meaning to the later scene when Juliet feels betrayed by her). In their first scene together, Juliet takes the Nurse’s hand when the Nurse speaks of her daughter Susan, a nice touch. Interestingly, in that scene Lady Capulet creates a stronger bond with her daughter than is often shown. She applies lip gloss to Juliet, and so when Juliet says “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move,” she looks at herself in a small mirror. And Juliet is truly happy in that scene, which is nice.  

One thing that is often quite difficult to do is to honestly capture and portray Juliet’s youthfulness. After all, she’s not quite fourteen. But Erika Soto does an absolutely wonderful job of this, embodying the youth of Juliet rather than playing it. She gives a sweetly humorous reading of “a rhyme I learned even now.

I also like the relationship between Benvolio and Mercutio. They are quite playful together. Mercutio then becomes more serious for the beginning of the Queen Mab speech. And I love Mercutio’s reading of “True, I talk of dreams.” I also like that Mercutio, on “And the demesnes that there adjacent lie,” merely glances downward rather than grabbing at his crotch. The more subtle glance is much funnier.

The scene where Romeo reads the list of invited guests is cut. The party scene is set to modern music, and begins with the company in a choreographed dance. Romeo asks Benvolio (not the Servingman) about Juliet’s identity. On his “ne’er saw beauty till this night,” the music stops, and the rest of the actors freeze, facing upstage, giving the entire focus to Romeo and Juliet for their first interaction. This is wonderful, because it captures well that moment of instantly falling in love, the world melting away, all other sights and sounds dropping out. Because in that moment the entire world is that other person, and you really feel that with this production. Juliet is delightfully nervous as Romeo goes in for their first kiss, and then she more eagerly leans into their second kiss.
A while sheet is draped over the step ladder for Juliet’s balcony. The balcony scene is one that is familiar to everyone. We’ve seen it so many times, and yet this company is able to truly make it feel new. It was a delight to watch these two talented actors shine in this scene. This production uses the preferred Q2 reading of “a rose by any other word” rather than “name.” On “Take all myself,” Juliet, lost in joy, touches herself, and that, as much as the line, is what leads Romeo to reveal himself, which is wonderful. The bit about the swearing is so sweet and adorable. I like that Juliet stresses “tonight” in “I have no joy of this contract tonight.” And it is with some urgency that Juliet tells Romeo “Stay but a little, and I will come again.” There’s a wonderful moment where Romeo reaches up to her, and she reaches down, but their fingers can’t quite touch. Juliet says the “Parting is such sweet sorrow” line, but Romeo joins her on “That I shall say good night till it be morrow,” an interesting variation.

The Friar, not Romeo, delivers the “grey-ey’d morn” speech. Romeo enters which such joy and energy, that for a moment you almost forget that he’s doomed. Friar Lawrence gives a serious, stern reading of the “not been in bed tonight” line. And I love the Friar’s reaction to Romeo’s admission about his love for “the fair daughter of rich Capulet.”

As is often done, there are hints of Mercutio being bisexual, if not gay, and there possibly being some sort of attraction between Romeo and Mercutio. For example, a playful spanking leads to Mercutio’s “Thou hast most kindly hit it.” And in some of his movements and tone when teasing the Nurse, there are hints. That of course doesn’t stop the Nurse from being attracted to Mercutio. She gives a funny reading of “every part about me quivers,” and clearly enjoys the attention.

One of my favorite scenes of the play is where Juliet tries to learn Romeo's message from the Nurse, and this company does a great job with it. The Nurse fans herself. She later pulls out a flask and drinks from it before “Lord, now my head aches,” which leads to Juliet massaging her. What’s great is that the presence of the flask is used to give more meaning to the Nurse’s sudden “Where is your mother?

Mercutio’s lines about Benvolio quarreling at the beginning of Act III don’t quite have the humor they usually do because the speeches of the opening brawl were cut, and so the peaceful nature of Benvolio wasn’t established as strongly at the beginning. However, neither Benvolio nor Romeo has a sword in this scene, so that helps to show their peaceful intentions and demeanor. Only Tybalt and Mercutio wear swords. And in the fight scene, Romeo actually grabs Mercutio’s arm to stop him, and that’s when Tybalt lunges, making it even more Romeo’s fault, which is great. Tybalt is excellent in this scene, seeming just as shocked as Mercutio by what has transpired, and unable to leave.

Nikhil Pai does an excellent job as Romeo in the scene where he learns he’s been banished, which is a difficult scene to do well. His reading of “Heaven is here where Juliet lives” is spot-on. And he has a great desperation in his face when he pulls out the dagger in the Friar’s cell. It is the Nurse who gently removes the dagger from his hand while Friar Lawrence calms him with his speech. The Nurse’s bawdiness is played up in this production, and she even delivers her “I could have stay’d here all night” to the Friar with a sort of lusty longing, then covers herself with her following lines. It’s a nice bit of humor at the end of that scene.

One thing that this production adds is the scene where Romeo sneaks into Juliet’s chamber and the two consummate the marriage. It’s usually added to film versions, but is not actually in the written text. It’s done beautifully here, as a choreographed dance. The two actors do such a good job with it, as they are nervous and excited and joyful. It’s wonderful that the lovers are allowed that time for happiness, and that the audience is able to see it. In the morning, the Nurse enters right after Romeo’s “Juliet wills it so,” so we lose that great moment where Juliet suddenly realizes the danger of Romeo staying, a cut that surprised me.

Another cut that causes a little trouble is that of some of the dialogue between Juliet and Capulet regarding the arranged marriage to Paris. The cut causes Capulet’s anger to seem too sudden and extreme. Possibly the biggest cut is the loss of Paris in the tomb scene. And since he is cut, his Page is as well, so it’s unclear who sends for the watch. (Of course, this means that the Prince’s line about losing a “brace of kinsmen” is also cut.) Paris being cut from this scene might be at least in part due to the doubling of parts – the actor who plays Paris also plays the Prince, and it would take a little work to get Paris’ body off stage somehow in time for the Prince’s entrance. By the way, that doubling makes some sense, as they’re kinsmen. (Balthasar is cut, so it is Benvolio who delivers the bad news to Romeo and then accompanies him back to Verona.)

The only speech that for me doesn’t have quite the right feel is Juliet’s “Gallop apace” speech. Her reading seems a bit too serious. After all, basically what Juliet is saying here is that she can’t wait to get laid. And when the speech is done with girlish joy and excitement, the change is all the greater when the Nurse arrives with the news of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment.
This production of Romeo And Juliet was directed by Melissa Chalsma (who directed many of the Griffith Park productions I’ve attended). There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act III Scene i. This production runs through May 3, 2014. The Independent Studio is located at 3191 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles. Street parking is available and free after 6 p.m. and all day Sundays. There is also a parking lot. So parking is not an issue. Tickets are $20, $15 for students.

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