I wish I could say that Romeo and Juliet, this year's American Stage Shakespeare in the Park offering, was one thing or another — all good or all bad, worth the admission or a show to miss. But the fact is, this year's production has as many flaws as it has virtues and is both too good and too bad to make a simple review possible. So, instead of one all-inclusive over-arching argument, here's a series of notations on a profoundly mixed experience:
Romeo: Ryan Tresser is pretty good when the script calls for anguish, for shouting, for fighting. Problem is, he seldom shows us anything like tenderness, the startling birth of love or the profound silence of a man in the presence of his heart's desire. This problem starts early when Romeo is supposed to be deeply attached to a certain Rosaline and deeply hurt that she's spurned him. Instead of anything like pain, we get Romeo laughing and cavorting, fooling around with his friends as if he had nothing very important on his mind. Do we expect to see a difference when he finally meets Juliet? Forget it — Tresser plays the scene at very much the same level of energy as all the scenes before and all that follow. Of course, this loudness is just fine when Romeo's enraged or in despair. But can he be utterly without delicacy?
Juliet: Charlotte Northeast is the best thing in the show. This Juliet is young, naive (but knowledgeable about sex), quite ready to fall in love at first sight and to be true to that love — based on little more than appearance — to the very point of death. In a production that's marked by so much unmotivated shouting, Northeast's Juliet is an oasis of emotional truth, a young woman who feels every word that she speaks and who raises her voice only when circumstances demand it. How does she handle the balcony scene? With wonderful good feeling, so joyous and innocent that you can't help but worry about the dangerous degree of her inexperience. How does she handle her death scene? With the fanatical simplicity of a child, a sad child. This is a performance to remember and to learn from; this is Shakespeare.
Mercutio: What in the world is bothering Mercutio? This word-besotted joker, this most over-eloquent of Romeo's buddies becomes, in the hands of Che Ayende, an angry, aggressive, tantrum-throwing nemesis. Why is this Mercutio always so close to violence? Why does he seem so enraged at his friends, and so sexually vicious where women are concerned? When Mercutio calls out, "A curse on both your houses," we should despair to think that this fine young man should so express himself. But when Ayende's Mercutio hurls this imprecation, it's just the latest bad behavior from a consistently nasty wretch. Clearly director Andy Goldberg wants Mercutio this way; he even dresses him in devil's horns in one early scene. But the portrayal never makes sense.
Portrayals That Mostly Work: You finally have to give in to Bonita Agan as Juliet's nurse. Although she, like so much of the cast, is too loud at times, she also makes sense. She's bawdy, unprincipled, and a good ally until she finds a reason to change sides. Also impressive is Ami Sallee Corley as Lady Capulet. She's aristocratic, avoids shouting matches and generally comports herself with the dignity of a fine lady of Verona. I wish I could say that Ryan McCarthy's Benvolio is fine from the start, but this is one of those performances that makes more sense as time passes. At the end, we finally understand that he's Romeo's true friend.
Portrayals That Mostly Don't: Did you know that Juliet's father was a brutish, abusive thug who learned his manners on the world wrestling tour? Neither did I — till I saw Mark Chambers play the role. Then I had to wonder why Juliet wasn't transferred to foster care long ago. Another problem: Matt Bradford Sullivan as Friar Lawrence. I don't want to repeat myself, but might we expect that a friar, of all people, would be capable of a few quiet words? Surely the good cleric should be the voice of (apparent) reason, a steadying hand when Juliet is distractedly threatening suicide. But no, whatever the situation, this friar is a loudmouth. And does that fine actor Bob Devin Jones satisfy as the Prince of Verona? Well, he looks princely, all right, but his verbal delivery's much too monotonous. When one of our best actors disappoints, one begins to suspect that some of the blame has to be attributed to ...
The Director: Last year Andy Goldberg did a loud and terrific hip-hop version of Shakespeare called The Bomb-itty of Errors, a show so fine and funny that this very Weekly Planet named it the best of 2002. So what went wrong this time? Well, although Bomb-itty and Romeo couldn't be more different, it looks like Goldberg tried to direct this year's show at last year's level. Thus the shouting, the ostentatious sexual gags, the unnecessary physicalizations and the general excess. And a tragedy as complex as Romeo and Juliet just can't take it. Romeo wants modulation, contrast, not just forte but piano. If Bomb-itty was a rap song, Romeo's a concerto. And you simply can't conduct the one like the other.
Oh Well: At least the design elements are consistently excellent. Troy Hourie's beautiful set is of a Renaissance mini-palace adorned with paintings that seem to have climbed down from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Olivera Gajic's costumes are a nice mix of contemporary togs (tee shirts, for example) mixed with more elegant period wear, and Ken Travis' sound design nicely punctuates the action with mood-setting music.
And that's this year's Shakespeare: not a success, not an utter failure. When Juliet's on stage it works. When emotions run high, even the noisiest performances make sense. And when the stage gets too loud, you can look up at the stars and hear their (quiet) blank verse.
And remember that somewhere, lovers are whispering.
Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.