Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Staging Upsets This Romeo Review

From Donal O'Connor at the Stratford Beacon Herald:

"The feuding Capulets and Montagues take another fierce go at each other in Romeo and Juliet in this season’s opening show at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, this time under the direction of newly appointed artistic director Des McAnuff.

"The show that opened last night is richly textured, generally well acted and — with some reservations — a triumphant debut for Mr. McAnuff’s hand-picked Juliet, the New York actress Nikki James.

"Ms. James brings a sweet vulnerability and naturalness to the part, and it’s no great flight of imagination to see her as the 13-year-old Juliet of Shakespeare’s play.

"Gareth Potter’s Romeo, if a little hard to take seriously at first, certainly holds up his role as the other half of the star-crossed lovers, particularly as the darker passages of the tragic story unfold.

"But this is not to say there aren’t several troublesome aspects to this production.

"To start at the beginning, Heidi Ettinger’s set at the Festival Theatre presents a modern scene in Verona — cafe tables in a tiled or bricked courtyard and shiny motor scooters with a timeless background of an arched Veronese bridge.

"The show begins in modern dress —blue jeans and denim jackets for the younger set, suits for the older men, stylish modern dresses for the women. An initial dust-up between the battling families involves handguns. There’s even an automatic weapon fired by the Prince of Verona (Wayne Best) to restore order.

"The action moves on to the Capulets’ dinner ball where players appear in costume, seemingly 17th century. Swords replace guns as the weapons of choice. Players are puffed up in lavish dress.

"Fine, it’s a dress-up party, but you expect sometime afterwards that these folks to whom you’ve been introduced will revert to their modern garb. Well, it’s a long wait in this production and, for me, that anticipation is an unnecessary distraction.

"Director and designer appear to be saying, 'Hey, this story is as relevant today as it was when Shakespeare wrote it.'

"A tribute to other productions, perhaps, that pulled the play totally into today’s world? Something to appeal to younger audiences? It didn’t work for me.

"Yet another distraction in this Romeo and Juliet is the frequent use of a trap door at centre stage to place props on stage as scenes are changed. Used judiciously, the device can be magical. But after delivering — among other things — a garden, a bench and even Juliet herself at one point — one is prompted to think 'What’s going to pop up next?'

"I’m also not convinced the rumbling forward motion of the mid-section of the bridge in Ms. Ettinger’s set helps the production.

"Apart from the workings of the set, it seems to me there are a couple of major difficulties in the more general staging, and none more crucial than the lost opportunity to establish initial romantic contact between the young lovers. With few words between them prior to the well-known balcony scene, it’s vital there is some emphasis placed on the scene at the Capulet’s ball when Romeo and Juliet make eye contact.

"Without it, the airy and poetic balcony exchange seems strange and forced.

"Alas, any loving glances the lovers may have exchanged at the Capulets’ are lost in the action and in the overblown yards of material in which costume designer Paul Tazewell dresses the players.

"And, finally, there’s the Mercutio ( Evan Buliung) character. Testosterone-driven for sure and not a very likable fellow, but is it helpful to have him repeat the phallic gesturing over and over? Or retrieve a cucumber from under the skirts of Juliet’s Nurse (Lucy Peacock)?

"Considering the several off-putting elements in the staging, it seems in some ways remarkable the production still manages to deliver the emotional impact that it does.

"Shakespeare’s compelling text is of course marvellous for doing just that when placed in the hands of capable actors. And Ms. James and Mr. Potter are supported in this regard by strong performances from Ms. Peacock, who presents a multi-layered Nurse/confidante, and by Peter Donaldson as Friar Laurence, who by turns scolds, dishes out reasoned advice and ultimately sees his best-laid plans for the impetuous lovers go terribly wrong.

"Mr. Buliung’s Mercutio — apart from the excesses already mentioned — is aptly bellicose and fully drawn, and John Vickery as Capulet, Juliet’s father, is another standout with a convincing, physical performance.

"Sophia Walker’s Lady Capulet, meanwhile, walks the fine line between wanting to protect her headstrong daughter and knowing she must ultimately side with her husband. Timothy Stickney is a fierce and formidable Tybalt, and Gordon Miller finds the measure of Benvolio, in whom reason tempers impetuosity.

"Paris, the Capulets’ chosen suitor and considered step upward for their daughter, is dutifully played by Steven Sutcliffe. But the character is so ordinary and unlikable, coming as he does between the lovers, that no one is likely to find it unforgettable.

"Paul Dunn adds some comic relief as Peter, one of the Capulet servants, and is good for an early laugh or two. But don’t expect that to mitigate the effect of what is an inordinately gloomy story of young love thwarted."

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