Sunday, October 20, 2013

Romeo and Juliet: ICCT's "Two Hours' Traffic" Experiences Delays

by James E. Trainor III

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. It's right there in the title, if you use the old-fashioned stylings: "The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet." Heck, the Prologue tells you right at the beginning that the title characters are going to die (sorry, spoilers). Still, for all the weeping and wailing and shedding of blood, the piece doesn't really fit in with the "great tragedies" of the later period. It has none of the brooding introspection of Hamlet, none of the pervasive horror of Macbeth or the diabolic machinations of Othello. Next to the bitter social satire of King Lear, it might as well be a stand-up comedy act. No, Romeo and Juliet is a younger, lighter Shakespeare, and it's the one I usually point young people to when they complain of how boring and hard Shakespeare is. Sure, it's a tragedy, but it's perhaps the sexiest, funniest, most vibrant and vicious tragedy written in the last five hundred years.

So when it's not held lightly by a production company, it tends to suffer. ICCT's production, directed by Gavin Conkling, runs a plodding three hours, and while it retains much of the joy and humor of the text, much of it feels like a grim death march, pushing slowly on to the inevitable conclusion. The design choices and some of the cutting and blocking took away a lot of the text's intrinsic vitality. Nevertheless, it's a chance to see some great actors at work.

The production's most challenging burden is the intricate set (by Arthur Virnig). Don't get me wrong: it looks great. Virnig has created some excellent modern settings that gel well with Nate Sullivan's costumes and give the actors a very realistic place to play. The only problem is, it takes time to move all that stuff on and off. Romeo and Juliet, depending on what you cut, has around twenty scenes, some of them only thirty lines long. Stopping the action at intervals really drags on the energy, and it feels like just when the actors get on their feet and get some momentum going, we're off to the next location.

The other major issue is the energy in general, which feels a lot less hot-headed and aggressive than you would expect on the streets of Verona, which apparently has been overrun by civil brawls in the recent past. The family feud is somewhere offstage; the fights are more duels between young hotheads than general brawls; even the heads of the family seem coldly indifferent to each other at worst. Likewise, the party at the Capulet household lacks a feeling of riotous revelry; all the dancing and partying is going on somewhere offstage. The feel of the setting is marked by emptiness and quiet spaces. Part of this may be a lack of attention to detail in the staging and the acting choices; I noticed people ignoring implied stage directions, talking to people who weren't there, moving lines to new contexts that didn't quite ring true. However, the starkness and quietness of this Verona seemed intentional, and while it makes for some interesting imagery I'm not sure what it adds to the piece. It seemed as though a lot more focus was devoted to evoking a particular mood than to specifying the character choices moment to moment.

This is a shame, because there is some really great acting. Juliet (Ramya Hipp) is charming; she gets the youth, frustration, and cleverness of Juliet, and she's specific and clear about everything she's saying. She plays well off of her scene partners, particularly in the scenes with the Nurse (Diviin Javaan) and Romeo (Luke Spurlock-Brown). Romeo himself starts off a little low-energy; Spurlock-Brown chooses to play the opening scenes really broody, but he opens up fairly early and he is a very generous partner in all of his scenes. Javaan's Nurse and Rich LeMay's Mercutio bring out a lot of the humor of the piece; when either is on stage it livens up a lot, and they're also really good at being specific with the language. Other notable performances are Rachel Korach Howell as Benvolio, and Audrey Thompson-Wallace's Sister Lawrence.

Some of the best scenework in the show comes during the scenes between Sister Lawrence and Romeo. Lawrence is a surrogate mother to Romeo here, in contrast to the cold and distant Lady Montague (Nicole DeSalle). Early on they make a great comic duo in the way she bosses him around even though he towers over her; later on the tenderness and the compassion are evident. Both actors, as well as the director, have put a lot of thought into developing this relationship, and it really shows.

The fight choreography (K. Michael Moore) is done exclusively with knives, and this makes for some exciting fight sequences. Tybalt (Bryan McIntyre) is very good, both in his initial scuffle with Benvolio and in his fatal duel with Romeo. The dispatching of Mercutio seems to happen too fast, and doesn't make the most of LeMay's acting talents, but Tybalt's death scene is extremely vicious and very satisfying.

The ending is a bit of a mixed bag; Hipp and Spurlock-Brown definitely hit all the marks, but the pacing feels very slow even though large chunks of texts are cut. Of course, how to cut Shakespeare is a dicey proposition in the first place, and it's particularly weird with something like Romeo and Juliet, which is filled with obscure puns and slice-of-life servant humor. Most of this stuff is always cut (though the lack of servant scenes is a particular shame in this production, with Roxy Running and Jilly Cooke doing a great job as ensemble actors in these roles), and it's arguable whether the Apothecary is truly necessary.

There were two choices at the end of this production, however, that were a bit puzzling. The first was to remove the entirety of Sister Lawrence's monologue at the tomb; indeed, Lawrence's capture and return were cut altogether. Not only was it difficult to believe that the Prince (Brad Quinn) suddenly figured everything out with a quick offstage investigation, but cutting Lawrence hurts because Thompson-Wallace, with her focused objective work and verbal specificity, was doing a lot of the heavy lifting near the end. The other was to move the Chorus (Serena Collins) from the beginning of Act II to the very end of the play. Usually this is cut altogether, because Romeo covers the same material in the very next scene. Placing it at the end is an odd choice, and I'm not sure what purpose it serves. It basically says that Romeo and Juliet are now in love and will find ways to meet despite the odds. Maybe placing this speech immediately after their deaths is supposed to highlight their determination, but it just didn't ring true for me.

Ultimately, ICCT's production of Romeo and Juliet is uneven. When it's on it's really on; when it's not, it leaves you feeling like Juliet, impatiently tapping her foot, waiting for something to happen. Still, it is worth seeing this classic play realized by some wonderful local actors.

Romeo and Juliet runs through October 27, with Sunday shows at 2 p.m. and Friday and Saturday shows at 7:30 p.m. Ticket information available here.

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