The Woodward Shakespeare production of “Romeo and Juliet” is so brisk you might feel slapped. On opening night it clocked in at just over 90 minutes including intermission, which is 45 minutes to an hour shorter than most other abridged contemporary versions of the show.
Director Daniel Moore ramps up the pace to a point almost approaching parody, with characters spitting through dialogue at tongue-twister speed. Because of the extreme minimalist setting, there are no pesky scene changes to worry about, which speeds the transitions even more. The result is a production that feels quick, furious and breathless. At a few crucial moments — Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech, say — I felt like I was watching a TIVO recap with the button held down on the one-triangle fast-forward setting.
This is all well and good if you’re looking for a short evening. And I’ll be the first to admit that there are aspects of a brisk production that I love: no long and awkward pauses between scenes, no meaningless tromping about the stage, no labored monologues, no feeling that we’re trudging toward a predestined ending.
But even though I admire the fact that Moore has a strong directorial viewpoint — which in this case involves ruthlessly paring the play to a bare-bones emphasis on the first-love frenzy of the two title characters — I question how much he gives up in terms of emotional connection. Time and again I found my brain more engaged not by the language itself but in how quickly the words were whipping by.
Moore enlists a talented cast in support of his vision. Even it is stripped to bare essentials. (Let’s put it this way: Brandi Martin, who plays Juliet, does double duty in the opening scene as a boisterous servant.) All but three actors play multiple roles. This approach to casting adds to the lean, taut feel of the production, and I liked it a lot. It reminded me of a small traveling company made up of grizzled veterans pulling into town for a short run.
Moore’s minimalist concept for the show is effective, too. Jordan Roberts’ set is little more than a series of walls, but they’re effectively placed to create spaces for the actors to interact. All is simple: Juliet’s balcony is a box, and her deathbed a pallet on the ground. Painted in deep shades of violet, the color selection is what gives the set its richness. (When I watched the opening night performance, the dark teal color of the sky in the last remnants of sunset blended with the purples on stage, creating a gorgeous moment.) Hailey Gildersleeve’s costumes offer lots of aquas and purples as well, and her quasi-classical designs, spiffed up with a touch of modern eccentricity, add lots to the visual effect as well.
As the title characters, Brandi Martin and Ryan Woods hold their own amidst the blistering pace, and I enjoyed their interpretations of the roles and handling of the text. Martin, a standout, might not have been blessed with the best natural voice in terms of range and timbre for Shakespeare, but she makes up for it with control and articulation, and she is an impressive Juliet in this show. She’s at her peak when wavering between silly teen and emerging woman — the character is only 13, after all, a fact we tend to forget — and it’s amusing to watch her navigate the two worlds. In one particularly effective little-girl moment, she holds her hand up beside her head but can’t decide the “grown up” way of placing it, so she just sort of freezes. I found it tremendously endearing.
But Martin is hampered by the blistering direction. When she hears the news that she’s to marry Paris (a fine Dane Oliver, who continues to impress me each time I see him on stage), I wanted time for her to absorb the shock. Not a long, dawdling moment, perhaps, but at least a significant beat — a sign that she is living in the moment, not scurrying through a race. More than anything in this production, I wanted room for the characters to live a little.
The same can be said for the chemistry between Juliet and Romeo. Several of their more athletic kisses occur in the midst of what could almost be described as choreography, their lips no more than regular body parts brushing against each other in calculated haste. Where’s the heat?
The fight choreography is well done, and several of the supporting performances are very strong. An impressive Aaron McGee lathers up as a stormy Tybalt, and then he turns around and slips onto stage as hapless Friar Lawrence. Singleton Yost is a boisterous and compelling Nurse, and Jochebed Smith puts some impressive scamper in Benvolio’s step.
Moore last directed an exceedingly speedy version of “The Taming of the Shrew” for Woodward Shakespeare in 2007, which was more successful. (Even with that show, however, there were some wobbles, including a loss of nuance in the language and the downplaying of some of the subtleties between Kate and Petruchio.) But staging a breakneck comedy is easier than exploring the comic textures in a tragedy such as “Romeo and Juliet.”
The danger is that Moore is so close to the material that he’s made a Cliff’s Notes version of the show for insiders. Yes, purists can protest the heavy truncation of the script, which diminishes the secondary characters, but my problem with this production has more to do with the director not giving his furious first-love-above-all concept of the play the space to succeed.
Is this production of “Romeo and Juliet” all at breakneck speed? There are, thankfully, a few opportunities to breathe, and when they occur, they’re powerful. When Mercutio is stabbed, I love how the violence sears into the play like a red-hot lance that rips through the breezy coolness of what’s come before. (The contrast is all the greater thanks to the previous, all-pervasive brisk tone.) For all my reluctance at the frenzied pace, at that moment I was genuinely moved.