Romeo and Juliet at The [email protected] is a production full of problems, beginning with the casting of Romeo himself. By choosing T. Scott Wooten for this storied part, director Bob Devin Jones made a wager that an actor of limited range could impersonate the greatest male lover in theater history, and convince us of a trajectory leading from infatuation to suicide.
Jones has lost this wager. Wooten is likable enough, but he lacks the vocabularies of action and emotion that Romeo needs — that most large Shakespeare roles need — and comes across merely as a shallow, goofy kid-next-door, neither capable of a great amour nor of great sacrifice in its name.
Lacking enough notes to make good music, Wooten soon loses our attention; but when we turn to his Juliet, we're not offered much more. Brandii was superb in American Stage's King Hedley II just a few months ago, but as Juliet, she's just adequate — dazzled when she should be, grief-stricken when she should be, always appropriate and never anything more. This is a performance without nuance, without subtlety or complexity; there's no point in scrutinizing it because there's nothing beneath the surface.
With two such performances at the play's center, we look to other actors for sustenance — and we do find it a few times, in Jorge Acosta's realistic portrayal of Lord Capulet, in David Boynton's amiable turn as Romeo's friend Benvolio, in Nick White's embodiment of the bellicose Tybalt and, most impressively, in Giles Davies' acting as lovers'-friend Friar Laurence. In fact, Davies manages his dialogue and his affective life so formidably, he seems to have wandered into this curious pageant — from a Shakespeare play!
But these few portrayals just aren't focal enough to distract us from the star-crossed lovers; and in two other critical parts, two talented actors fail to satisfy. The usually prismatic Julie Rowe plays Juliet's nurse with two emotions only — great enthusiasm and great distress — and the skillful Matt Huffman plays Mercutio as if Romeo's buddy were suffering from a hyperactivity disorder.
There is one marvelous performer whom I've yet to mention — and that's the wonderful Sharon Scott, who as the Chorus sings the introduction to the play. I wish I could have spent the whole evening listening to Scott sing: she's that thrilling, that charismatic. But alas, after the intro comes the spectacle itself — and from the unconvincing swordfights to the all-too-belated double suicide, it's an event with few pleasures. Dare I suggest that Shakespearean acting requires years of training and/or experience? It's not just the large cast (23 in this production) that should scare off would-be producers.
O friends, not these tones! Rather let us turn to sounds more pleasant and more joyful. Okay, Beethoven, here's my Ode to the Occasional Joys of this Romeo.
Jones' direction: Whatever you may think of his casting, Bob Devin Jones does a masterful job of keeping the play moving through its many and various segments, and even has us believing in the famous balcony scene when in fact Juliet is only standing on a low platform.
Acosta as Lord Capulet: When Juliet tells her father that she doesn't want to marry County Paris, the patriarch explodes with threats and warnings — and as delivered by Acosta, these might be the fulminations of any patriarch cowing his progeny into an unwanted liaison. I believed every moment of it.
Davies as Friar Laurence: Giles Davies has only one defect, which is a tendency to add unnecessary hand gestures as he speaks his perfect dialogue. Drop those gestures, artist, and you would be welcome at Stratford itself.
Bonnie Agan as Lady Capulet: She doesn't have many lines, but still manages to suggest a wife dominated by her husband and baffled by her child.
Finally, I should add that Patricia Kelley's modern costumes are tolerably interesting, and the minimal set by Rich Agan and Timm Metler is all we need, really, for any Shakespeare play. A rose is a rose, in the garden and out.
"An actor," says the great teacher Stella Adler, "is one who uncovers and incorporates the secrets of words." This is perhaps more true with Shakespeare than with any other writer: we need our actors to manifest the treasures dormant and hidden in the dialogue. This Romeo doesn't deliver: the secrets remain secrets. But if you love the Bard, you'll be undaunted. Next time — or the next — you'll find the Shakespeare you're looking for.
And that's a pleasure worth seeking — in St. Petersburg and everywhere.