Sunday, May 25, 2014

ASF Interns: "Romeo and Juliet"

Director Greta Lambert's abridged version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with this year's ASF Acting Intern Company lives up to the high standards she has been setting for the last few seasons in productions that tour to many cities and schools.

With intelligent editing that preserves plot and theme which gives actors all the tools to develop their characters, and matched with Tara Houston's flexible multi-level grid-like set and Elizabeth Novak's effectively romantic period costumes, the focus is on the beauty and humanity of Shakespeare's text.

The Bard's "star-crossed lovers" are arguably the best known romantic duo in Western literature, and their tragic end has been depicted with endless variety around the world on stage and screen since the 1590s. -- Ms. Lambert's production trusts the script's universality to resonate today without fussy concepts to distract us. Bravo!

Though they are the teenage offspring of two feuding families, Romeo and Juliet meet, fall instantly in love, and marry secretly; when one of many street fights results in the deaths of two young men, Romeo is exiled to a "life worse than death" away from Juliet. -- Meanwhile, Juliet's parents arrange a wedding which she refuses despite threats of being disowned; and the Friar who married them convinces Juliet to take a drug that will replicate death for a short time, allowing Romeo to return to Verona to take her away; on arrival at the tomb, Romeo believes Juliet to be dead and commits suicide at her grave. When Juliet awakes and sees her husband dead, she stabs herself. Their families agree to a peaceful coexistence as a result of their loss.

Most of the ensemble play more than one role requiring either complete costume changes or as simple an adjustment as donning a pair of spectacles and assuming a different posture. The choices are clear and demonstrate the flexibility of these talented actors. -- We never for a moment doubt who they are portraying whether they capture their characters' youthful energy and adolescent excesses or the authoritarian steadfastness of parents, servants, priests, or royalty.

Brennan Gallagher is convincing both as the compassionate Friar and as Juliet's commanding intractable father Lord Capulet; he is matched by Lea McKenna-Garcia's Lady Capulet who shifts from maternal concern to complicity with her husband's demands that Juliet obeys him.

Daniel Solomon portrays Tybalt, the "prince of cats", with effective swagger that is counterbalanced by his role as a servant. -- Christian Castro is a bundle of energy as Romeo's friend Benvolio and a more contained and elegant Paris who is set to marry Juliet as her father arranged.

Rivka Borek is a powerhouse Princess whose judgments are not to be questioned, and as Juliet's Nurse, a woman who is both a substitute Mother-figure and confidante, and a go-between for Juliet's marriage to Romeo.

Joshua Marx plays Romeo's father, Lord Montague, with stolid composure that is contrasted by his aggressively excitable Mercutio. His masterly swordplay (thanks to Seth Andrew Bridges for staging the believably dangerous fight sequences) and "Queen Mab" speech make him an endearing character whose accidental death is all the more hurtful, and his "curse on both your houses" a reminder to us that petty arguments too often result in needless violence and death.

The focus is on Romeo and Juliet throughout, and Morgan Auld and Christina King deliver with conviction all the contradictions and fickleness of adolescence. We watch them grow up before our eyes from naive teenagers caught up in the throes of first love to serious adults who make decisions with full realization of their consequences. -- And we like them because they touch some impulses in all of us.

There is hardly a moment in this production for audiences to catch their collective breath as Ms. Lambert's vigorous direction sweeps us up in the conflicts, and has us -- regardless of knowing the outcome -- fully participating in the lives depicted on the intimate Octagon Stage.

While there are moments of humor that elicit well-earned laughs inherent in Shakespeare's verse, for the last twenty minutes or so, there is a hushed silence from an audience thoroughly engaged in the tragedy to come. Well done!