Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Exciting and Fresh" R & J, Despite Leads

Another 2.5 stars (out of 4) for Romeo and Juliet. This time from J. Kelly Nestruck at the Globe and Mail:

"Rat-a-tat-tat! Des McAnuff knows you get only one chance to make a first impression and so Romeo and Juliet, the primordial production of his tenure as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, comes out with machine guns blazing.

"In the thrilling opening to his new production, a pregnant woman and her baby get caught in the crossfire of rival gangs of Capulets and Montagues, who duel with switchblades, pistols and Vespas until the Prince breaks them up with his Uzi. The following flashy scenes set in modern-day Italy include iPod-toting Lolitas and a barista making espressos right on stage.

"As it turns out, however, McAnuff is only playing with his image as that big-shot Broadway director who bumped the more earnest Marti Maraden and Don Shipley aside to become the sole artistic head of the festival earlier this spring. (Though invited, neither Maraden nor Shipley was in attendance at the premiere; they had, however, both made appearances at Shaw Festival openings the week before.) A few scenes later, Romeo and his friends change into period dress for the Capulet ball – and they never change back. Just as there is no turning back from inevitable tragedy once the two lovers meet. It's an exciting and fresh approach to the play, which makes it seem as if the self-absorbed teenage lovers have been swept up in a melodramatic masquerade of their own making, the seriousness of which neither understands until it's too late.

"After the spectacular opening, McAnuff has a few more tricks up the humungous sleeves of Paul Tazewell's colourful costumes. None, however, are clever enough to paper over the production's gaping hole: a Romeo and a Juliet who are both out of their depth.

"Gareth Potter, who has worked his way up through the company, and Nikki M. James, McAnuff's young American protégé, convey their characters' youthfulness and innocence without any difficulty whatsoever. Indeed, the petite James is the first professional Juliet I've seen who could actually pass for 13.

"But the two have little chemistry and both fall into trouble as soon as the play calls for more than dewy naiveté. Potter can be quite compelling when he rises to anger, but too often his lines are just an amorphous mass. As for James, her sing-song delivery becomes increasingly monotonous as the play goes on into more treacherous territory. You feel neither their love nor their loss.

"Potter's and James's difficulty in handling the text would not be quite as apparent were they not playing opposite two stellar veteran supporting cast members: Peter Donaldson and Lucy Peacock. Donaldson's Friar Laurence is not a bumbler as he is often portrayed, but a genuine sage who hopes Romeo and Juliet's love will heal the rift between their two families. As the Nurse, Peacock had the crowd in stitches with her delicious comic lines, but was equally affecting in her hysterics after Tybalt's death.

"Other delights in the support casting cast include Evan Buliung's wildly self-destructive Mercutio, an alternatively charming and frightening manic depressive Timothy D. Stickney's macho Tybalt, and Paul Dunn as servant Peter, making the most out of every moment he is onstage.

"John Vickery is perhaps a bit too fey as Capulet, though he does project tyrannical power in his rages, while Gordon S. Miller plays Benvolio as a bit more of a bed wetter than perhaps necessary.

"McAnuff's colour-blind production is very fluid, aided by the mobile set of arches and bridges designed for Stratford's famous thrust stage by Heidi Ettinger. Every scene begins with someone running onto the stage or the set, which quietly and automatically transforms.

"But while the production moves and moves, it doesn't move. There wasn't a wet eye in the house as Romeo and Juliet took their lives one after another, at least not until the Nurse arrived to drape herself on their body and Friar Lawrence delivered the epilogue. (He delivers the prologue too, becoming the heart and soul of the production.) The modern day invades again in this final scene and continues into the curtain call, which takes place to blasted jangly guitars of the Cure's Just Like Heaven. Another sign that there has been a change at Stratford. 'I promise you that I'll run away with you,' Robert Smith croons. 'I'll run away with you.'

"McAnuff's opening show is a mixed bag, but I'm intrigued enough to run away with him for a while and see where he's going to take us."

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