17 July 2016

Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare

As everyone knows, Romeo & Juliet is the greatest love story ever told. Officially. Of course, the reality of the play is slightly less romantic and more teen suicide-y, but such is life. Or death, in Romeo and Juliet’s case.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Romeo & Juliet tells the story of two young people from feuding families—the Capulets and the Montagues—who fall in love. They are married in secret to avoid their families’ enmity, but when Romeo is banished for killing Juliet’s cousin in a duel the romance takes a turn for the worse. In (rather hyperbolic) despair, both young people contemplate suicide, until Friar Laurence comes up with a plan to reunite them: he will give Juliet a potion to simulate death, and then he and Romeo will pick her up from the Capulet family tomb. But messages go awry and Romeo only hears that Juliet has died, so he goes to the tomb and poisons himself, and upon waking to find her husband dead, Juliet stabs herself.

The West Virginia Public Theatre did an excellent job bringing the play to life, under the direction of Jerry McGonigle. The acting was good, the aesthetic was consistent, and the performance was engaging. The Neoclassical setting of the Metropolitan Theatre felt right at home with the production.

Despite the play being a tragedy, I felt the most memorable performances were actually the comic pairing of the Nurse (Mya Brown) and Peter (Mark Combs), and Romeo’s friends Mercutio (Joe Bussey) and Benvolio (Lonnie Simmons). Brown gave an especially strong performance as the Nurse, presenting her with a slight Mammy flavor, which worked really well for the garrulous Nurse. For instance, when relating the story of Juliet falling face first as a child, Brown’s timing was perfect as she repeatedly cut off Lady Capulet to laugh and repeat the story joyfully. And Brown’s interactions with Peter provided a wonderful comic relief that for me ended up overshadowing much of the tragedy of the play. Combs played the uncomprehending servant Peter delightfully, conveying his confusion and uncertainty through both body language and facial expressions.

Bussey and Simmons also gave strong supporting performances as Romeo’s companions. Bussey presented Mercutio as a kind of swaggering, over-sexed, combative frat boy, which perfectly conveyed the character’s inherent mercurial quality. Often loud and vulgar, Bussey’s best scene was during the fatal duel with Tybalt (Rick Mugrage). In that fight he combined the joking irreverence of his earlier scenes—instead of drawing his parrying dagger Bussey gives Mugrage the finger—with a deadly seriousness that combined both sides of the character’s personality. Simmons played a different role as Romeo’s friend Benvolio, but his compassion and concern for Romeo was performed just as compellingly. Especially early in the performance, when Benvolio tries to raise Romeo’s spirits, Simmons conveyed how much Benvolio cares for his friend.

The performances of Romeo (Gareth Marsh) and Juliet (Margaret Dransfield) were strong, though I feel overshadowed by some of the supporting characters. I have mixed feelings about Dransfield’s performance of Juliet. She was vivacious and actively engaged in pursuing Romeo, but I didn’t get a sense of aristocratic dignity or the softness often associated with Juliet. There were times when this more assertive Juliet worked really well, and times when the inflection or performance style fell wide of the mark. Marsh played a good, though conventional Romeo. He was dominated by melancholy, and one problem with the way Marsh played the role was that it erased any distinction between Romeo’s initial (ostensibly false) love for Rosalind, and his later (ostensibly true) love for Juliet. There’s an interesting argument to be made that Romeo doesn’t really love Juliet (whether she loves him is a different matter whatever), but loves the melancholy of thwarted love. I’m willing to buy that reading of the play, but I’m not sure the Public Theatre presentation did enough to suggest that reading in this performance. Instead, Marsh’s performance conveyed the same quality of love for Rosalind and for Juliet, which undermines our belief in Romeo and Juliet’s true love and ultimately in the tragedy of them dying for love.

The only real shortcoming of the performance were a few lighting issues. There were times when a character stood to one side of the stage and cans were used to light that side, but the lighting missed the character (or, more probably, the character missed the mark to stand in the lighting). At the end of the balcony scene, for instance, Romeo stood stage center right, but the lighted area was to his right, so Romeo delivered several lines from the dim edge of a lighted area.

One major technical success, however, was the stage fighting. The production involved extensive, multi-person stage fights, which were beautifully choreographed and performed. Considering how difficult and dangerous stage fighting is to choreograph, Darrell Rushton (fight director) and the cast did an excellent job.

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