Saturday, April 21, 2018

Romeo & Juliet (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I have a bit of trouble figuring out it the Vagrancy's production of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet marks the best or second best of this play I've seen.  That particular decision can wait for other day, but the fact of the question gives some idea of what this show may be like.

This specific play offers something of a challenge, in that it seems so straightforward.  What can one do to make it fresh or interesting, especially with some major major motion picture coming out every few decades?

Credit: Wes Marsala
The ultimate answer lies in showing the story from a different lens, as well as letting individual actors bring out their own individual and vibrant takes on the characters.  This production did this in spades, tweaking a few details along the way--most obviously by bringing Fate itself on stage in the person of three women:  Maiden (Mia Moore), Matron (Erica Ibsen), and Matriach (Toni Tinkelman).  The Fates, in other words. We hear the prologue and epilogue from them, while they pop up as different characters throughout.

But more importantly, the leads bring their characters to life in a fully realized context.  We feel them and their world real, which makes their love real and the way it ends that much more genuinely tragic.

Credit: Wes Marsala
Eddie Ramos as Romeo has something of the harder task, because as written he seems so fickle.  Seems proves to be an important word.  As ever, context turns out to be everything.  This context emerges as a place of hyper and toxic masculinity, rather like Shakespeare's own time, when making someone bleed for saying the wrong thing feels so natural any attempt to simply prevent a possible murder engenders rage.  Amidst all this seething, sneering arrogance (so perfectly portrayed by Tory Devon Smith's Mercutio and Austin Iredale's Tybalt) Romeo comes across as refreshingly sane.  We see his passion to not triumph over others, but find and win true love.  Not, as others like Benvolio (Nicky Romaniello) , merely getting some girl to come to bed.  He wants marriage, happiness, giving and receiving joy with another.

No wonder Juliet (Acacia Fisher) falls for him!  Raised by the cowed Lady Capulet (Kim Swennen) and major league bully Lord Capulet (Darrett Sanders), she sees in Romeo a stark difference.   To others, even the fairly benign County Paris (Andrew Walke), Juliet seems little more than a doll, a thing to do as it is told.  Romeo looks not at her dress or pretty face, but her.  To someone as quietly, fiercely herself as this Juliet, one can see why the impact of a genuine gaze might prove so intoxicating.

Credit: Wes Marsala
Only the Nurse (Brittney S. Wheeler) of almost any other character on stage, sees Juliet herself.  But the Nurse turns out too wedded to survival, to subservience, to ever truly be on Juliet's side.

Little wonder, then, both find in Lawrence (Dana Lyn Barron) an ally upon whom they can rely, simply because she clearly means them both well.  She has her own agenda, yes, but one without any desire to dominate.

See how the nuances all fit together?  In performance this becomes ever more clear, practically building upon every word or gesture.  The casual, cruel sexism of virtual every single male to the frozen smiles on almost every woman in public (then the cowed, sometimes terrified ones in private) help create this world, one interestingly devoid of any racism but with an embedded misogyny there for all to see.  Nor do I see this as "taking liberties" with the play.  Read Shakespeare and see how much attention his works give to the plight of women in his own society--up to and including the distrust women routinely must feel towards men from Rosalynd to Beatrice (and what happens to those--like Gertrude, Desdemona, Lady Anne--who don't).

Credit: Wes Marsala
The rest of the cast deserves praise as well, for their uniformly fine performances under Caitlin Hart's direction in creating a fantastically cohesive, powerful tale with hardly a hiccup from start to finish:  Allison Andreas, My-Ishia Cason-Brown, Kamar Elliott, James Ferrero, Schuyler Girion, Danielle Gonzales, Kolton Kolbaba, Ron Slanina, Megan Marie Thiel, Kiki Milner and Racheal Sarah Yeomans.

Come to think on it, that absolute consistency puts this production in the lead.  Yes, this is the best Romeo & Juliet I've ever seen.

Vagrancy's Romeo & Juliet plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until May 6, 2018 at The Shakespeare Center, 1238 West First Street, Los Angeles CA 90026.

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