Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kyler Tausten
Fight Choreographer: Conor Olmstead
Review by Craig Idlebrook
What are your evening plans this weekend? Cancel them. I’ve got a Shakespeare play for you.
Wait, no, I’m serious. I can hear the arguments now from the Bard-haters: long-winded speeches, posturing on stage, something fit for academic halls. But that’s why you’ve got to drop what you’re doing and see the Brown Box Theatre breathe some life into the dusty folios with a no-frills, fast-paced production of Romeo and Juliet.
This production is the antithesis of pompous, and you can tell that director Kyler Taustin set it up this way. Even the location and timing of the performance seem like no accident. Instead of an elegant Shakespeare-in-the-Park scenario, the play takes place in a large yard, and the players must fight for your attention amid the din of traffic and the occasional passing helicopter. The players, on the whole, know they must be loud and clear in their actions, and Taustin doesn’t let them linger over their lines. His fast-paced direction necessitates the actors not get too ponderous on stage, and the galloping pace of the poetry takes over the play. This is not academic Shakespeare; it’s a vital two hours, no-intermission production, with the down-to-Earth feel of a Medieval travelling troupe playing on the village green for their supper.
The production is deceptively sublime, with choices seemingly made for utilitarian reasons drawing the audience into what starts out as a rom-com, but ends as a bloodbath. Designer Cory Rodriguez’s set first appears to be little more than irregular stacks of wood cobbled together to separate the action from the rest of the park, but as the noose tightens around the characters, it takes on a more sinister and suffocating quality. Likewise, the unusual start-time of 6:30 first seems like an odd choice, perhaps a vain attempt to get the play in before dark and avoid the expense of lighting. But when the lights come on and darkness falls, it echoes the shadows crossing the fates of the star-crossed lovers, and Rodriguez’s simple lighting design brings an understated dread. Fight choreographer Conor Olmstead also deserves kudos for creating simple, but believable fights that make us worry for the safety of the characters, not the actors.
Director Taustin sets up the cast to succeed, and the action takes on the feel of a relay race, with each group of actors taking the baton when Shakespeare’s character development for the previous group stalls. Juan C. Rodriguez shines as the moody lover Romeo, and Laura Menzie reflects his love as the 14-year old Juliet during the first act. But in the second act, as Romeo grows more and more despondent, and less and less sympathetic as a character, it is Menzie who leads us into Juliet’s nightmare. Through Menzie’s halting performance and irregular eye contact, we see that Juliet is not a blessed, little rich girl who can choose between well-off lovers, but a trapped thing with few options save for the most violent.
Taustin illuminates an inner life for Juliet’s family which is rich enough to be a play in itself. Juliet’s father, played by Patrick Curran, is a dangerous man, prone to violence, who is all the more dangerous because he thinks he’s a nice guy who must keep the ship afloat at all costs. With a wide smile and quick movements, Curran makes Lord Capulet into a worrisome cross between a teddy bear and a thug. Juliet’s mother, played by Kate Paulsen, has long since stopped trying, and she has spiritually left her daughter to deal with the force of nature that is the family patriarch. Paulsen infuses Lady Capulet with a frailty that is as palpable as could be found in Blanche or Stella in a strong production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The nurse, beguilingly played by Emma Undine Wiegand, seduces both the audience and Juliet into thinking she will be the true mother to this woebegone teenager, and it is her betrayal, more than Romeo’s banishment, that finally sends Juliet over the edge.
This free production is going to hit the road in just a few days, so you only have the weekend to catch it. Bring bug spray and show up early to get a seat up front, as not every actor can fight over the din of a Harley.