Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Romeo And Juliet (Shakespeare Center Of Los Angeles 2014 Production) Theatre Review

Every good Shakespeare production will show you something new, even about the most familiar of plays. The new production of Romeo And Juliet put on by the good folks at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles is set in the 1920s, a setting which gives a different tone to many of the characters, particularly Mercutio and the Nurse, and makes us look at them in a fresh light.

The space is set up as mainly theatre in the round, with the audience seated on all four sides of the center stage. So it has a wonderfully intimate feel, while still seating a good number of people (the capacity, as I was told, is 409). And as mentioned on the company’s web site, no seat is farther than six rows from the center stage. The whole space is surrounded by trees, adding to the sense of intimacy – like a magical clearing in the woods. There are also set pieces at two of the four corners, behind and above the audience, so while the audience surrounds the center stage, the audience is also surrounded by the set as a whole, which gives a sense of being in the middle of the action. The actors are miked, so that they are audible even when facing away from you. The only problem with that is that you sometimes lose the sense of direction. So in a moment where an actor is hiding among the audience members, you might not be able to immediately place him.

This production begins with a bit of 1920s-type jazz playing as the Chorus steps onto the stage. The Chorus in this production is played by a woman, Cristina Frias, dressed in a black dress. While she speaks, Montague and Capulet stand at opposing corners, which is interesting because it immediately sets them up as being responsible for the play's events. We have the faces of the two households even as the Chorus describes them. (Capulet is played by Elijah Alexander, who played Macbeth in this year’s A Noise Within production.)

The opening brawl scene is mostly cut. Benvolio (Wyatt Fenner) and Tybalt (Christopher Michael Rivera) enter as newspaper boys, hawking their papers by shouting lines from the Chorus’ speech, but then quickly go into their dialogue. Sampson, Gregory and Abram are cut completely, so there is no biting of the thumbs. Benvolio talks about keeping the peace, but he hasn’t broken up any fight. This opening scene is very rushed, and Prince Escalus shows up almost immediately. Interestingly, the Prince is a woman in this version (also played by Cristina Frias, who in addition plays the Apothecary). Lady Montague is cut completely from this production.

The newspapers are then used in the scene with Benvolio and Romeo. Benvolio playfully whacks Romeo (Jack Mikesell) in the behind with the paper on “tyrannous and rough.” This production follows the Q2 reading of “I have lost myself.” There is quite a bit of interaction with audience members in this production. When Benvolio urges Romeo to “examine other beauties,” he points to a woman in the front row. Then when Peter receives the list of guests to invite to the Capulet party, he shows the list to a few audience members, seeking their help before turning to Romeo. Romeo gives a wonderful pause before reading Rosaline’s name.

When we first meet the Nurse (Kimberly Scott), she is up on the balcony, dancing to jazz. Then when she is dismissed by Lady Capulet (Tracey A. Leigh), she is slow to exit, and does so comically before being called back. On “’a was a merry man,” she does a brief dance step. It’s a playful performance. Some of what the Nurse does is absolutely wonderful, but there are times when it’s a bit over the top, as her reaction to the idea of Juliet getting married. By the way, in that early scene, Lady Capulet gives a slight pause before “Marry, that ‘marry’ is the very theme/I came to talk of.” That’s wonderful, for it’s as if she hasn’t been listening closely to Nurse, which shows that the Nurse has a habit of rambling, but then suddenly realizes she has a way to get to her point.

As I mentioned, the 1920s setting gives Mercutio a different feel. Mercutio (Gregory Linington) has a walking cane and glasses, seeming like a writer who might have hung out with the Algonquin Round Table and written for The New Yorker in its infancy. He interacts quite a bit with the audience. On “ladies’ lips who straight on kisses dream,” Mercutio goes into the audience, asking a woman for a kiss (and getting it). Later Mercutio actually pulls an audience member up onto the stage for the conjuring of Romeo.

The 1920s setting is perhaps most brought to the fore in the Capulet party scene. It is all fun, flappers and feather boas. The dancers freeze when Romeo sees Juliet (Christina Elmore) and delivers his lines about her. After “For I ne’er saw true until this night,” everyone goes back into motion. And Tybalt then has his lines about recognizing Romeo’s voice. This is odd for two reasons. First, Romeo is not masked. And second, Tybalt and the others were frozen in place during Romeo’s speech, the conceit being that they did not hear or see what took place. It’s as if the world stops, and so the world can’t be aware of anything that happens while it is stopped. And yet somehow Tybalt is aware.

The others exit as Romeo approaches Juliet, as if the party is over. Romeo and Juliet slow-dance as they say their lines (“If I profane with my unworthiest hand...”). Romeo is delightfully youthful and nervous and excited in this scene, as he is in the balcony scene. Romeo stands and reveals himself on “I take thee at thy word,” causing Juliet to scream and retreat into her room. Romeo gives a great honest reading of “What shall I swear by?” He truly asks the question, a sweet touch.

Benvolio and Mercutio wait for Romeo in silence for a while, as Mercutio works on a crossword puzzle in the newspaper (crossword puzzles became quite popular in the 1920s). Mercutio pauses before “butt-shaft,” hitting on it for a laugh, which he gets, but the meaning then taken by the audience is not the meaning likely intended by Shakespeare. (A butt-shaft is an unbarbed arrow used for practice at targets.) (And earlier Mercutio jokes around with the “open-arse” line, as if diving headfirst into someone.)

Having established the Nurse as a pretty lively woman (when we first see her, she is dancing), this production has her actually rushing back to Juliet with the news from Romeo. She comes in behind Juliet, thus overhearing the last part of the girl’s impatient speech. So when Juliet says, “but old folks,” referring to the Nurse, the Nurse suddenly slows, pretending her lower back hurts. This is a really nice way of doing it, and something I hadn’t seen before. (There is still the question of why it’s taken so much time, but this production creates an interesting relationship between Peter and the Nurse, so perhaps they took a little detour to enjoy themselves.)

As always, when you change the time period of a Shakespeare play, some problems arise. In this production it is mainly the lack of swords that causes some issues. For example, Tybalt’s “turn and draw” doesn’t quite work. And when Tybalt says to Mercutio, “I am for you,” he and Mercutio begin getting ready for a fist fight – rolling up their sleeves and so on. It’s cute, and gets some laughs, but this moment should be more intense. After all, this scene is really the point on which the play turns, and comedy becomes tragedy. Mercutio does have a sword hidden in his cane, so it is with this one sword that Tybalt ends up slaying Mercutio. It is a bit awkward, and there is a bit too much silliness as Mercutio dies. His comedic lines should be in contrast to the very serious thing that has just happened. But adding physical comedy to it takes away from the moment.

When Romeo says “Mercutio’s soul/Is but a little way above our heads,” Tybalt gives a small, surprised glance to Benvolio, which is a really nice touch, showing that Tybalt certainly did not mean to kill Mercutio and is shocked by his death. After Romeo kills Tybalt, he immediately regrets it, cradling Tybalt in his arms, which is another nice touch. So when Romeo says, “O, I am fortune’s fool,” you believe he really feels it.

This production cuts almost all of the Prince’s role, including the scene where he (or she, in this case) banishes Romeo. Juliet at first doesn’t believe The Nurse when she says, “he’s dead, he’s dead.” She thinks the Nurse is teasing her, which is an interesting take. I like it, because it more naturally comes from the great mood Juliet was just in while waiting for night to come (the “Gallop apace” speech). It isn’t until the Nurse says she saw the wound that Juliet takes her seriously.

One of Romeo’s toughest scenes is that at the Friar’s cell when he learns of his banishment. And this is perhaps the weakest scene of this production. Romeo is at one level through most of the scene – loud, upset, whiny. He even pushes the Friar before falling to the floor. And because of the lack of swords, Friar’s “Tybalt would kill thee” doesn’t quite ring true. Would Tybalt have killed Romeo? It seems like they would have had a first fight. But Tybalt had no sword, and he already regretted his unfortunate slaying of Mercutio, so it’s unlikely Tybalt would have killed Romeo in this version.

There is an interesting dynamic in the Capulet home. The relationships among the family members are well defined, with the actors making strong choices (including the relationships between the Nurse and the various family members). When Lady Capulet asks, “Can you love the gentleman,” Juliet looks to the Nurse for guidance, a very nice way of showing she’s closer to the Nurse than to her mother. Lady Capulet is angry with her husband’s haste in marrying Juliet to Paris, and actually slaps him, which is interesting. So Lady Capulet’s lines to Juliet about the “sudden day of joy” carry a certain amount of bitterness. And when Capulet enters and asks “still in tears?” Juliet rushes into his arms, showing that she is closer to her father than her mother. It is a wonderful moment, for we know that it is her mother that perhaps would be more understanding of Juliet’s situation. This also gives Capulet a place to move from when he becomes upset. Before Juliet takes the potion, Lady Capulet’s “need you my help?” is perfectly sad. She really wants to help; she wants desperately to connect with her daughter in a way in which she perhaps hasn’t before, which is heartbreaking.

Quite a lot is cut from the fifth act. Balthasar is cut, and it is Benvolio who arrives to give Romeo the news. Paris’ Page is cut, as are the Watchmen. Balthasar (or Benvolio in this case) is also cut from the scene at the tomb. All of the dialogue about the statues, as well as Friar’s explanation of events, are cut. Chorus enters after Juliet’s death. Montague and Capulet enter as they did in the opening of the play. And the Chorus repeats the opening speech. While I do miss the Prince’s admission of culpability, it would have seemed to come out of nowhere, given the small role the Prince plays in this production.

This production of Romeo And Juliet was directed by Kenn Sabberton. The music was composed by Brian Joseph, a singer/songwriter I’ve had the pleasure of seeing perform in concert. There is one intermission, coming after Benvolio’s “Why dost thou stay?” in the first scene of Act III. The production runs through July 26, 2014 at the Japanese Gardens on the grounds of the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center Campus (just off of the Wilshire exit from the 405).

By the way, it’s a pretty area. There are several picnic tables for those who want to take their dinner with them and eat it before the show. It seems a good portion of the crowd does this, for I arrived more than an hour early, and all the tables were already occupied.

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