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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Romeo and Juliet’

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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.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Romeo and Juliet’"

Donald:

Thank you for kind kind words, your insights, and your critique.

Greg Taber
Executive Producer, WSF

Stephen says:

Donald, I think this production affected you more deeply than you know.

Your review is deeper than most, with some of your sentences reaching the poetry and verse of a Shakespeare.

I can relate – you clearly love this piece very much, and the performance affected you both poorly and truly. I think that’s the unstated and likely unplanned point of such brevity of direction – you long so much for connection and emotional interpersonal touch that your frustration mounts as it is denied you – more frustrating because the elements are there beckoning – so when they allow you the lush and thick moments of truth and a moment to love you embrace it so intensely that it holds on to you, like a mother who only says “I love you” once in every great while. But she says it so intensely you know it to be true.

This production seemed to allow those intense moments for you, which is sometimes good, and certainly different.

Intended? Maybe not. Effective? It turns out…’yes.’

Larry Medcalf says:

Even though I have not seen the current production of Romeo and Juliet,
I appreciate your comments concerning the massive cutting and reduction
of Shakespeare’s original script. Your concerns mirror my reaction to
the opening production of Comedy of Errors. Before the curtain opened
the executive director of the company almost proudly declared that the
evenings show only ran for 75 minutes! For comparison, the Santa Cruz
Shakespeare Festival’s highly acclaimed presentation of “Comedy” this
summer was 2 hours 10 minutes (with intermission). Which means our
local company, at best, gave us about 70% of the original script.

Your observations of the effect of this draconian stripping down of the
literature on the presentation are astute and insightful. I would also
suggest that at least three other statements are being made by the
company: we do not believe we have the actors capable of performing the
script as written, we do not believe we have the directors capable of
effectively presenting the script as written, and, most disconcerting,
we do not believe we have an audience sophisticated enough to understand
and appreciate the script as written.

I would very much like to support the Woodward Shakespeare Company, but
not as a company that basically has little, if any, trust in their own
company members or in their audience. Hopefully they will take careful
consideration of your observations in determining their approach to
bringing Shakespeare to life on the local stage.

The Woodward Shakespeare Festival strives to present the Fresno/Valley area with professional quality, community-based productions of the works of Shakespeare and, with the addition of our third show, other important playwrights.

Our intent is not to produce Shakespeare as Shakespeare did. We are not traditionalists in the sense that every word of the Bard is sacrosanct, it isn’t. Shakespeare was not writing literature, he was writing plays to be performed for an audience who would pay him to hear them. Shakespeare wrote his plays the way that he did for a theatre community and audience of his place and time; we produce interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays for a theatre community and audience of our place and time. Our directors chose to tell very specific stories within the overall story of Shakespeare’s play: we support their decisions.

We have absolute faith in our directors, else we would not agree to produce their visions; we have absolute faith in our actors, else we would not cast them; we have absolute faith in our audience, else we would not perform for them. We will not always be successful, there is always something to learn, it can always be better, and we will not always please everyone. All that we can do is stay true to our vision, hold fast to our artistic integrity, produce the best show that we possibly can, and then give it to our audience. After that, it’s out of our hands; we have faith that they will enjoy what we have given them enough to keep coming back.

Gregory Taber
Executive Producer
WSF

Brad Myers says:

I normally do not get into the blog fray, but as the director of the WSF production of Comedy of Errors,and the one responsible for the cuts in the script, I feel compelled not to argue with, but to clarify some points for Mr. Medcalf. Especially since he has inferred that I do not have faith in my actors’ capabilities. I believe his comments are well-articulated and in the interest of promoting a healthy discussion.
It is interesting that Mr. Medcalf cites the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production in which I am currently performing; my third time doing this show with the same director and concept. It is a production of Comedy of which I am very proud; however, I am equally proud of the WSF production.
The cuts that I used in the WSF production came from the much acclaimed 1989 production produced by the Stratford Festival in Canada, one of the most renowned Shakespearean companies in North America. Certainly this is a company that believes in its directors, its actors and its audiences. So perhaps other justifications came into play when choosing to borrow these cuts.
Yes, the WSF production had a different target audience than the Shakespeare purist who may be well-acquainted with all of Shakespeare’s canon. I wanted this show to draw audience members who are perhaps intimidated by Shakespearean plays. And I also wanted this production to be a great way to introduce younger people to Shakespeare. I speculate that at least 90% of the WSF audience had never seen nor read Comedy of Errors before seeing this production. I have performed in many, many Shakespearean productions with highly reputable professional companies. It is rare to find a production that has not made language changes or cuts. Usually the cuts are to get the running time down or to edit archaic language that does not resonate with a contemporary audience.
I cannot overstate how much regard I have for the actors who performed in the WSF production of Comedy of Errors. To infer that I do not believe in their abilities to play Shakespeare is an incorrect assumption.
I appreciate that Mr. Medcalf wants to see Shakespeare’s plays performed in their entirety. And I appreciate that he attended the Santa Cruz production of Comedy in which I continue to perform. However, I am honored to have worked with this particular group of actors. And I know the production was very successful at attracting a new audience that hopefully the company can continue to build on.

jamie says:

While I appreciate Mr Medcalf’s purist sentiment, I do not believe he lives in the world of 2011. We live in the twitter age and to think that large droves of audiences will sit outdoors in Fresno for more than two hours to watch Shakespeare is ludicrous. Even if you brought in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s shows from Central Park, once you hit two hours, people would be checking their cellphones and getting restless. I was there two years ago when Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald starred in Twelfth Night. The performance ran more than two hours and people walked out. And it was an excellent show.

Don’t blame WSF for trying to find a way to make Shakespeare relevant to a modern audience. They are doing their best to bring Shakespeare to Fresno. Sometimes their shows are great, sometimes terrible, but they are doing their best.

Mr. Munro, please let us know when Mr. Medcalf has a show running. It’s easy to be a critic. It’s damned hard to put on a show.