Sunday, March 17, 2019

ASF: "Romeo and Juliet"

Romeo and Juliet, Artistic Director Rick Dildine's first Shakespeare production since taking the helm at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, showcases his minimalist approach to this season and affirms his willingness to re-energize classics for 21st Century audiences.

Although purists might miss the customary Elizabethan costumes and elaborate scenery, Dildine's production in fact leans on the theatrical conventions of Shakespeare's own time: actors dressed in contemporary costumes performing on a mostly bare stage. So, Theresa Ham's mid-20th Century costumes and Josh Smith's scenic design that opens the Festival Stage to the walls and supplies scaffolding to accommodate the script [those balcony scenes, for example], allow audiences to concentrate on plot, character, and theme. -- While it might take a little getting used to, this energetic ensemble production makes a late 16th Century play resonate strongly for both experienced Shakespeareans as well as the casual theatre-going public.

Romeo and Juliet needs no introduction; it's on virtually everyone's required reading list, and has an impressive performance history on stage and in film...and we know how it ends -- so, why do this play now? Well, great playwrights and their plays remain popular in part because they explore universal subjects, and it is up to each production to find in them what touches the hearts and minds of their intended audiences.

Dildine interprets Shakespeare's story of the "star-crossed lovers" and the long-forgotten reason for family feuds that result in continual street brawls between their families as the vehicles that highlight an out-of-fashion patriarchy that assumes to know what is best but often does more harm than good, and pits parental authority against the younger generation's normal adolescent rebelliousness. Extremes of passion and untempered energy mark the ASF production; melodramatic histrionics of the young lovers and their peers are contrasted by the unswerving dictatorial positions of the adults. -- Much of what we see on stage at ASF could have been excerpted from today's headlines.

As the thralls of teenage romance and the high-testosterone posturing of Verona's youth [all swagger without thinking of the consequences] are brought to the fore, the fate of the young couple is determined by ill-advised authoritarian privilege, both secular and religious.

Matt Lytle [Romeo] and Cassia Thompson [Juliet] are an appealing couple, whose stage chemistry is admirable; they make it easy for us to approve of their love with all its contradictions and emotional excesses. -- Christopher Gerson's [Capulet] turn as Juliet's father commanding her to marry another man under threat of disinheritance is frighteningly absolute in his parental right to be obeyed.

Ann Arvia [Nurse] is a complicated mix: a substitute-mother to Juliet who also knows her place in the social hierarchy, giving encouragement to the match with Romeo on the one hand, and offering less-than-sage advice to marry Paris later. Ms. Arvia's performance delves into the nuances of a character who is also a go-between and a comic foil to the young men.

As Romeo's friend Mercutio, Billy Finn takes advantage of a role that is regularly given a lot of attention: he is the volatile leader of the pack, the cock-f-the-walk who instigates bravura altercations that turn deadly, the alpha-male who can ridicule his friends with good-natured banter, the speaker of the famous "Queen Mab speech" that warns Romeo of the obstacles to romance and marriage inherent in their society, and the dreamer who is devastated by his surroundings. A tour de force performance that comes full circle in one of the best sword fights in this production [Paul Dennhardt is the fight choreographer].

The energy of the ensemble is laudable, and the interpolation of several songs gives the production a contemporary appeal. The anachronistic use of swords in a modern setting stretches credibility at first, yet it becomes an acceptable convention as the play progresses. And while  Dildine's modernization has a lot going for it, the beauty of Shakespeare's language is often obscured  by amplified music or energetic stage business.

This Romeo and Juliet deserves to be seen. It engages from start to finish; its high-energy ensemble of actors is impressive; its themes resonate to our society; and it tells us to listen to one another and act to benefit us all.