Saturday, November 15, 2014

R&J (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

That seems like an odd thing to put in front of a review of Romeo and Juliet, doesn't it? Honestly. If you don't know the plot, where have you been?

Mind you, R&J from the Mine is Yours Theatre Company isn't quite Shakespeare's play. And yet it is. What these talented folks decided to do--reverse the genders of all the characters--makes for a startling re-imagination of a classic. Really, cannot give enough kudos for this. It makes arguably the Bard's most well-known tale quite fresh!

Let me note a few things right from the start, because this production deserves more than a simple "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" approach (not that I really write reviews like that, but never mind...) First, unlike Othello (which I reviewed earlier this month) Romeo and Juliet was penned early in Shakespeare's career. It makes for a less sophisticated, less complex and frankly less deep work. So when performed essentially "on the surface" in terms of just what you see at first glance, it works. It works better than his later plays, certainly. Too often I've seen later Shakespeare such as King Lear or Hamlet done as nothing more than story-telling, doing the plot pretty much and nothing else. That always feels shallow. But some of his early stuff, this works fine (like A Comedy of Errors for example).

R&J makes for a very straightforward story, albeit with a few traps. The biggest remains assigning blame to someone for the tragedy. But the whole point is that everyone is to blame, and no one. Our star cross'd lovers might have lived, had any one of a hundred things been different. Literally. Had Tybalt (Sarah Kata Watson) turned left instead of right. Had Capulet (Katherine James) discovered and welcomed Romea (Mary Ellen Schneider) at the party (as written one never gets the idea the head of either family encourages the feud at first). If a letter hadn't gone astray by sheer chance, or Benvolia (Hannah Pell) been delayed. At the very least what if Countess Paris (Hayley Brown) simply not been at Julien's (Paul Turbiak) tomb when Romea showed up? At heart, this play is about the tragedy, the cartharsis of feeling something going so wrong we must weep.

Make no mistake, this production hits the bullseye on that vital point. The beating, bleeding heart of the original lives and breathes on stage. So much so, when Romea put the poison to her lips I felt an intense desire she not do it--for the first time in seeing this play on many occasions.

Having written that, let me address a few problems. I see two. Both may seem subtle, but they do make a difference. First regards language. The cast does a very admirable job of almost always understanding the words they speak. Bravo for that! It remains remarkably rare in many such productions! Where they seem to have a problem is dealing with the elevated nature of some of the language. Most of the cast seems to want to avoid this, by pretending for example those rhyming couplets simply aren't there. But you cannot always do so, and sometimes a few of the actors who must speak in the most poetic manner fall back on a kind of airy mood, gazing upward with a sing-song shortness of breath which cannot help but feel fake.

Given the overall quality of the cast (which remains considerable) this sticks out like a sore thumb.

Second, in what world is this story taking place? I honestly don't know. The production didn't tell me, which indicates they hadn't really thought it through. Specifically, what are the gender roles of the society within which the tragedy takes place. From a few hints, I thought perhaps this was a matriarchy. And yet not one female character seems really strong, seemed to possess any kind of gravitas. As written, Verona is a state with rigid rules and enormous political power in the hands of a few, to the point of commanding absolute obedience with no possibility of appeal. Never got that sense. Likewise the males in the cast seemed to be bending over backwards to seem passive. But Shakespeare wrote strong female characters. Honestly very nearly the only strength (other than physical--the knife fights between women were great!) we saw now and then in the Nurse (Alan Blumenfield). Which I suppose is more of a comment on our own society than anything else...

Having said all that, let me reiterate--the cast overall did a very good job, and as far as enacting the soul of this tragedy, they hit a home run. I so hope I get to see more shows from this fledgling theatre company!

Mine is Yours' R&J has performances Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm & 7pm through November 17, 2014. Performances are at Theatre of Note at  1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd. Hollywood, CA 90028.
Get tickets online at! Tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for groups of eight or more (Discount Code: MIYGROUP).

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