Monday, September 3, 2018

Romeo And Juliet (The Southern California Shakespeare Festival 2018 Production) Theatre Review

Romeo And Juliet is one of the most familiar of William Shakespeare’s works, and yet it seems no matter how well we know it, productions of this play are still able to show us something new. Such is the case with The Southern California Shakespeare Festival’s current production of the play. By highlighting opposing attributes in certain characters, we in the audience take a fresh look at those characters and what drives them to make their choices. In particular, we see Romeo as both a young lover and as someone who can turn to vengeance, and Capulet as both as a joyful, loving father and a slightly unhinged would-be social climber who can’t stand being contradicted. Both of these characters (the two most important men in Juliet’s life) have violence within them, and it erupts at key moments which change the course of their lives and the play.

The set for this production has a couple of different levels, and is dominated by the reddish brown hues of the wood that makes up most it. Two lanterns flicker, one on the raised platform center stage, the other on a bench downstage right. Thin white cloth is attached to the top of the various wood frames. As the audience enters, somber music plays at low volume, the music have a religious or spiritual quality. The house lights are fairly low, and the tone of the room is decidedly not one of celebration. When the play begins, it does so in complete darkness, and once the actors have taken their places, the stage lights slowly go up, but are now red, an indication of the focus on the violence of the play. Interestingly, the production begins with part of the final scene, beginning with the Prince’s line, “What misadventure is so early up/That calls our person from our morning rest?” And we see the bodies of Tybalt, Paris, Juliet and Romeo. The scene plays through the Prince’s line, “Till we can clear these ambiguities.” It’s interesting to open on such a dark note. It’s also interesting to end the opening moment on the line about clearing ambiguities, as if the rest of the play will function to do just that.

The music turns lighter as we now go to the beginning of the play. The role of the Chorus is performed by both Juliet and Romeo, standing center stage and holding hands as they deliver the lines, which of course are about themselves and their families. And then the lights become brighter, and the music more festive, as the first scene of the play gets underway. The first quarrel certainly does have a light, comedic feel, what with the biting of the thumbs and so on. But of course we’ve already witnessed where it will all lead, and that gives the scene a darker undertone. (I recently watched a production of The Winter’s Tale, which is a tragedy that becomes a comedy, while Romeo And Juliet is a comedy that becomes a tragedy.) The swordplay in this scene is handled in a serious manner, even in the intimate space of this theatre. When we first see Capulet (Matthew Reidy), he is eager to fight Montague, taking joy in it, as Montague (Nathaniel Akstin-Johnson) is held back by his wife. So we get the first hints there of a tendency toward, or at least capability of violence. Then, when he speaks to Paris (Colin Guthrie) of Juliet, we see the other side of him. When Capulet says “Earth hath swallow’d all my hopes but she,” he smiles fondly on “but she,” which is nice, showing the love he has for his daughter, as well as her importance to him. Paris seems a kindly, nice man, which is good. After all, he is no villain, and is kinsman to the Prince. You can imagine that he might have made a decent match for Juliet, had she not met Romeo.

The friendship between Romeo (Alfonso Ramirez) and Benvolio (Isaac Jimenez) is done well. When Benvolio delivers the line “Examine other beauties,” he turns Romeo’s head toward the audience, indicating the women in front of him. Then, a little later, Romeo turns Benvolio’s head to the sky on his line about the “all-seeing Sun,” a nice touch. I also like that when Romeo reads the servant’s list of names, he and Benvolio get excited upon reading their friend Mercutio’s name. Mercutio (Larry Mayorquin) is presented with a good amount of play and enjoyment, particularly in the scene where he and Benvolio are looking for Romeo after they’ve left the Capulet party. Mercutio is clearly enjoying the effects of liquor.

Another element that strikes me about this production is how the Nurse acts as both friend and parent to Juliet, but is in the employ of Juliet’s parents and ultimately her loyalty to Juliet basically remains within those bounds. And it is when Juliet realizes that that she seems suddenly grown up and also alone. When we first see the Nurse (Linda Bisesti, giving one of the production’s best performances), she enters above and takes a swill after setting down her work. It is clear from Lady Capulet’s expression that the Nurse often rambles on, as she does in her first scene. And Juliet (Samantha Avila) delights in the Nurse’s rambling. We see plainly the affection Juliet has for her. By the way, this production draws a fairly strong parallel between the Nurse and Mercutio, through their common love for liquor. And each truly does play a similar role in the lives of Juliet and Romeo respectively. Both are comedic characters who show a strong sense of loyalty, but who have ties to more powerful characters – the Nurse to Capulet and Lady Capulet, Mercutio to the Prince.

The party scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet begins with a great deal of joy, particularly on the part of Capulet, who is in his element, and who actually makes it a point to avoid any violence, ordering Tybalt to stand down when he spies Romeo among the revelers. He doesn’t want the festivities spoiled, and sees no danger in Romeo’s presence. In fact, there is a nice moment where he lifts Romeo and Benvolio’s masks slightly, indicating to them he knows who they are but that they are in no danger for it. There is even a bit of good-natured teasing in that action, as he does it on the line “I thank you, honest gentlemen.” It is while Capulet and Tybalt talk that Romeo and Juliet have their first dance together, and then all the actors freeze while Tybalt (William Dinwiddie) addresses the audience. (By the way, while I like Tybalt’s performance, I could certainly do without the eye patch.) Then, when Romeo and Juliet have their “pilgrim” dialogue, everyone else remains frozen. It is as if time stops, and the world stops around them. Isn’t that the way it is when you meet your love? Also, in that way, no one witnesses their kiss, though they are among the other guests. During the balcony scene, Juliet says “that which we call a rose/By any other name,” following the Q1 reading, rather than the preferred Q2 and Folio reading of “any other word.” I love Juliet’s delivery of “A thousand times good night,” hushing him, as if sweetly trying to tell him the conversation is over (which of course it isn’t). Romeo has a great, youthful energy in this scene and especially in the scene where he goes to see Friar Lawrence.

Several of the actors seem a bit young for their roles, including those playing Lady Capulet and Lady Montague (but of course this production is at a college). Friar Lawrence is also young in this production, but that works quite well for the direction in which his character is taken. When we first see him, Friar Lawrence (Chase Atherton) is tending the plants. A young woman watches him, flirtatiously showing him her legs. And the Friar is not at all opposed to this behavior; in fact, he flirts too. This is a young and handsome Friar, and their flirting ends only when Romeo enters, interrupting and scaring off the girl. That gives the Friar’s line “Our Romeo hath not been in bed tonight” a different feel, because that is already on his mind. And later, when the Friar gives advice to Romeo, we see it comes from experience – in part because of his earlier flirting, and in part from Atherton’s vocal delivery.

After stabbing Mercutio, Tybalt quickly exits, realizing his grave error. What’s also wonderful here is that Romeo, for a time, thinks Mercutio is playing, as we can tell by his delivery of “the hurt cannot be much.” Mercutio’s “A plague o’ both your houses” is done out to the audience, as if we all share some of the responsibility for what has occurred. Then, after hearing that Mercutio is dead, Romeo – who was previously unarmed – grabs a sword and goes after Tybalt after saying his line “This but begins the woe others must end,” as if he is the one who must end them. This is obviously different from other productions (and from the text), in which Tybalt returns (Benvolio even has a line to indicate as such: “Here comes the furious Tybalt back again.”) The fight between Romeo and Tybalt is excellent. It is serious and long, and ultimately bloody. Romeo is determined to kill him, and his actions are surprising, even to himself. By the way, because Romeo goes after Tybalt, when Benvolio then delivers his line “But by and by comes back to Romeo,” he is not being truthful, which seems out of character. I love the way the Prince (Josh Adler) delivers the line “Bear hence this body,” regarding Tybalt, the word “body” spoken with some disgust and anger. A little later, when Romeo is with Friar Lawrence, his hand shakes – a nice touch, showing not only his nerves, but also his guilt, as it was his hand that ended Tybalt’s life.

It is when Juliet says she cannot marry Paris that Capulet begins to lose it. On “Mistress minion you,” he almost slaps her, but stays his hand. His anger has risen to the surface, and it’s like all of his emotions that he’s held in check for so long are now in play. After all, his nephew was just killed, and all the work he’s put into making a good match for his only living child is now being thwarted. And he eventually does slap Juliet. And when the Nurse intervenes, he threatens to hurt her too, while Lady Capulet stands quietly off to the side. After Juliet goes to her mother and is told “I have done with thee,” she is left alone on the floor. It’s a great moment, when we see a helpless child and can feel her desperation. Remember, Juliet is only thirteen. At that moment, she can still turn to the Nurse, and does so. But when the Nurse urges her to marry Paris, Juliet understands that she is truly alone and will get no help from anyone in her household. It is then that we see her grow up.

Juliet’s reaction to Paris’ kiss is wonderful, and her delivery of “O shut the door” receives a laugh from the audience. But perhaps her best moment is when she is going to drink the potion. She starts to take a sip from the vial, but then stops herself, saying “What if it be a poison?” Her delivery of the following speech is excellent. This production gives us both the scene with the servants just before the Capulet party and the scene with the musicians after what seems to be Juliet’s corpse is discovered, two bits that are often cut. The musicians are women in this production, which gives the line “Answer me like men” a different sense, and a chance for some humor, as afterward the women speak their lines with low, mannish voices. It is the final bit of humor before the play’s tragic ending. Romeo pauses before “Here’s to my love,” and you almost think Juliet will wake in time, another excellent moment. Juliet’s death feels a bit rushed. Then when everyone else enters, the opening moment is not repeated, but the scene picks up after that, with Friar Lawrence saying “All this I know.” The production then concludes with Romeo and Juliet rising to perform the Chorus again, so that the final line is “What here shall miss our toil shall strive to mend.”

Romeo And Juliet was directed by Robert Shields. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, coming directly after Tybalt’s death in Act III Scene i. This production is at the Studio Theatre, an intimate theatre on the campus of California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. There are only a few more performances, so pick up your tickets soon.

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