Romeo and Juliet

By Philip Pearce

MPC’S NEW PRODUCTION of Romeo and Juliet is beautiful to look at, telling Shakespeare’s story with admirable clarity, and is acted with a high emotional energy on stage but that doesn’t always fully engage the audience. 

It’s an innovative production. Modern dress, of course, is no longer any kind of novelty. But director Justin Matthew Gordon, who did such wonders with last year’s Hamlet at MPC, has turned the table on a script written to be played by an all-male company by casting Romeo, Juliet and all of their contemporaries except Tybalt and Paris with female student performers. Within the confines of Gordon‘s concept, they do a fine job. Just having teenaged lovers of either gender actually played by young actors was a nice change for oldsters like me, who can remember forty-ish Norma Shearer and late-forty-ish Leslie Howard trying to act adolescent and not quite making it. 

The challenge with young actors and Shakespeare is all that 400-year-old Elizabethan language. Gordon attacks the problem by having the cast deal with most of the speeches at a full-throttle emotional level that he combines with elaborate explanatory body language and gestures. All of this makes the plot points and character relationships clear but tends to illustrate rather than portray. For me, the broad acting and detailed stage business had the effect of distancing the characters. What they were up to and even how they felt about it were clearly evident. But they were costumed figures who engagingly explained rather than deeply expressing what was happening.

The effort did at times shine new light on familiar territory. The balcony scene was no moon-drenched Romantic idyll. Anjoli Johnson, a wonderful boisterous, bouncy and irrepressible Romeo, delivers Romeos’s soliloquies in Juliet’s garden as direct back-and-forth debates with the audience in a way that cuts through some of the distancing effect of the Gordon concept. Meanwhile, up on the balcony, Kiana Sorenson’s charming Juliet is no moonstruck fairy tale heroine but a clear-headed analyst of the futilities of the Capulet/Montague feud. The trouble, common to most Juliets, is that Douglas Ridgeway’s dark and otherwise flexible set design fixes Juliet so far upstage that  Romeo, closer to the footlights, steals most of the attention.

If this version has a major flaw it’s (as in last year’s Santa Cruz Shakespeare version) in what it does with Juliet’s nurse. Gordon has her played in toreador pants, spike heels and a sassy attitude, as if she were one of those wise-cracking Eve Arden best-friends-of-the-heroine types who figure in 1930s romantic comedies. It’s an appealing choice, and Lyla Englehorn makes it with impressive skill, but it also makes nonsense of most of what the Nurse says and does in Shakespeare’s text. Englehorn’s Nurse is too young and brisk and trendy ever to engage in geriatric wool gathering about having been present (and already long married) at Juliet’s birth. And she’s too sharp a cookie to be put down or even rattled by the juvenile joshing of a street-load of Montague household louts when she sallies forth with a message from Juliet to Romeo.

The highlights of this new R and J are Gordon’s management of crowd scenes and swordplay and Sarah Horn’s striking dance choreography. Helped by the effective costume plan of Gloria C Mattos Hughes and Ashley Tripp, the Capulet masked ball in Act 1 brings order, beauty and excitement to a complicated sequence of events that too often just end in noise and confusion. The ordinary run of ball-goers wear shades of black and gray, whereas the star-crossed lovers stand out clearly in patterns of white. When it comes to the many sword duels, Matthew Reich, solider and less snaky than your typical Tybalt, kills and gets killed with athleticism and grace, as does River Navaille’s cuckoo/psychotic Mercutio. Even Roland Shorter, who can’t do much with one of Shakespeare’s chronically boring supporting characters, manages to make Count Paris interesting and even exciting in his final swashbuckling moments in the Capulet tomb. 

Sarah Horn is quirky and ironic as Benvolio, usually presented as Romeo’s closest friend but here apparently in some kind of protective same-sex relationship with Mercutio. 

The older generation characters are age- and gender-specific. James Brady does some nice lightning shifts from jovial to tyrannical and back again to jovial as Capulet. Kristi Reimers is appropriately weepy and anxious as his wife, and Mitchell and Phyllis Davis have some effective if brief moments of rage and anxiety as Lord and Lady Montague.

Oliver Banham’s Prince Escalus is so clean-cut and self assured he seems ready at any moment to add his name to the list of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls. 

  As Friar Laurence, Howard Burnham, as always, brings an experienced ease, even a note of realism, to the character of the man of God whose efforts to help the lovers unite their quarreling families sets the tragedy in motion. 

No Shakespeare production is perfect, but this one takes a firm hold on the story and keeps it moving swiftly to its tragic climax, even if it sometimes does so at the expense of nuance and the emotional appeal of its characters

It plays weekends on the Morgan Stock Stage at MPC through March 10th.

Photo: Sarah Horn & Niki Moon