Romeo and Juliet- Arizona Theatre Company, Phoenix

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The future of British theatre changed dramatically in 1662.  That was when a royal warrant finally decreed that going forward, women, rather than young boys, would now play all female roles.  One can only imagine the thrill William Shakespeare might have experienced had he remained alive long enough to witness the radical casting improvements of his plays on the London stage.

By the same token, one can’t help wondering what Shakespeare might have thought had he witnessed the new, gender changing production of his most famous of romantic tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, as presented by Arizona Theatre Company at Herberger Center.  It’s one thing to have Montague’s lines delivered by Lady Montague (Heather Lee Harper) during the final burial vault scene – here it’s Montague who has died of grief, not his wife – but it’s another to have the Prince laying down the law and giving orders that must be obeyed when delivered with such forceful, no-nonsense power by a woman (an outstanding Leslie Law).

Elizabethan audiences went to the theatre to hear a play as much as they went to see it.  With limited stage direction and no specific set design, Shakespeare’s text makes his plays easy to adapt for BBC radio or audio recordings with little or no changes required.  This also gives theatre and film directors license to portray the plays in new and inventive ways.  Students of Shakespeare may prefer to see the Bard of Avon’s plays presented in their original, Elizabethan form, but it’s the constant updates, changes and reinventions that keep the work alive for new generations who may otherwise have little or no interest.  Here at ATC, director Kirsten Brandt has taken a bold leap forward with the story of the star-crossed lovers by presenting the play as a vibrant, lustful, ever-moving production with seamless scene changes supported by inventive, multi-media screen projections and imaginative lighting.

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At the outset, the names of both Romeo and Juliet are projected across two opposing brick walls, reminiscent of the graffiti style of closing credits used by Robert Wise to end West Side Story.  When the sight fades you suddenly realize that not only are the names a special effect but so, too, is everything else.  Take away the projection and the stage is laid bare, full of blank screens.  Fill those screens with street sights, orchards and brick walls and the stage comes alive.

The setting is Italy, but it’s Italy of the early sixties.  America had yet to experience a cultural change, but London was now swingin’ and Italy was experiencing the freethinking of la dolce vita; the sweet life.  Characters enter dressed in the period – tailored suits, figure hugging dresses, spiked heels, trendy sun-glasses – and transport is the Italian brand of a scooter; a Vespa.  When Romeo (a suitably youthful Paul David Story) and Juliet (a luminous Chelsea Kurtz) meet for the first time at the Capulet’s house party, as designed with the hanging lights that appear from above like night stars glittering in the dark, the movement, the music, plus the overall look of the setting and the character’s appearance, it’s as though Fellini had directed the Dance at the Gym.

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The play opens with an immediate confrontation setting the scene of the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets.  Traditionally a character called simply Chorus – usually a male who plays no other role – enters and foreshadows the fate of the doomed lovers from the beginning, but here that opening speech comes later amid the cacophony of noise during that initial altercation and delivered by Benvolio (another gender change from the original text played effectively here by Kathryn Tkel).  As a result, what she’s saying tends to sound rushed and gets lost in the noise, particularly when she tells of this being a two hour play.  Actors must have talked fast in Elizabethan days – the play rarely stops to catch a breath yet it lasts an hour longer.

There are several directorial flourishes that work well.  That Vespa is a nice visual touch to the time and place as it motors across stage, plus those inventive projections add a rich, atmospheric texture to the settings, particularly the flash of red during a murder or the splash of blood that flings from Romeo’s knife to the wall behind him, but there’s also the occasional overreach.  Watching a blown up image of the lovers in bed removes the intimacy of seeing them for real, plus the faded image of the deathly skull projected on the wall when drugs are administered doesn’t set the scene as well as intended, it just makes it more obvious.

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There’s also the issue of the musicians.  From time to time, actors stand or sit stage left playing instruments which proves both distracting and unnecessary.  There’s already an effective, scene setting musical landscape courtesy of Michael Roth.  Once you realize they’re there, perhaps sitting at a keyboard or holding a cello, your attention is diverted away from what should really be your center of attention.  Particularly intrusive is the percussive pounding used during Juliet’s bedroom speech that all but drowns what she’s saying.

For a tragedy, Shakespeare incorporated much humor, fleshed out particularly well with playful energy by Leslie Law as Nurse and Richard Baird as Mercutio whose delivery of the almost incomprehensible and lengthy comic speech, “O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you,” manages to elicit laughs in several unexpected ways.  But in a production that works so well in some areas – the playfulness of the balcony scene, for instance, makes something familiar seem fresh and alive again – there’s a danger of veering too much into making other things appear funny.

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Sadly, some audience members on this opening weekend either had friends on stage to support or were simply determined to find laughter in places where none existed.  Those seeing Romeo and Juliet for the first time at the Herberger on Saturday night would be forgiven for thinking they were watching a full blown comedy, such was the determination of some patrons to laugh and applaud as loud as they could at the slightest suggestion of humor, diminishing the impact of the play not to mention the enjoyment of others while harming the overall production.  Memo to those in the house with associates on stage: tone it down.

 For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ATC website.

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