Romeo and Juliet
Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre
Through Nov. 11
Polk Theater, TPAC, 505 Deaderick St.
For tickets, call 255-ARTS
Three steps forward. Two steps back. That’s the way it is in the theater sometimes. So after giving us the thoroughly moving experience of Margaret Edson’s Wit as a season opener in September, Tennessee Repertory Theatre tries its hand at Shakespeare but doesn’t quite succeed.
Preliminary information on the new production of Romeo and Juliet promised dazzling visuals and a unique approach to the Bard’s classic tale of young love thwarted by family and fate. The Rep’s publicity department didn’t lie: The sets, costumes, and lighting are definitely striking. Moreover, the style in which the play is rendered would have to be considered at least thought-provoking. The problem here is that the production isn’t any good. There are plenty of actors onstage with legitimate reputations, yet hardly any of them distinguish themselves. And after the first 20 minutes of what can only be described as theatrical eye candy, we are treated to a feast of errant conceptual thinking and direction that can only be described as plodding.
Executive producing director David Grapes is the mastermind behind this minor fiasco. In his quest for something differentwhy, after all, would anyone want to see a straightforward and beautifully acted bit of classic theater?Grapes has moved into the area generally reserved for modern-day musical theater, where all the glitz of costumes and the trappings of spectacle are often substituted for real substance. Maybe it’s a nod in the direction of our television culture, an acknowledgement that even theater artists can’t be expected to conquer the attention-span deficiencies of the modern audience. Especially not with Shakespeare.
If this decked-out version of the greatest love story ever written had been hitting on all cylinders, there would be no quibbles from this quarter. But when the stars of the show are the costume, scenic, and lighting designers, the play isn’t going to win over anyone who considers performance to be theater’s primary concern. Old wine in new bottles is a fine idea, but beware of sour grapes.
Make no mistake, Lane Fragomeli’s costumes are noteworthy if not stunning. He seems to take a cue from the “Pinball Wizard” scene in the film of the rock opera Tommy, throwing in a dash of Alice in Wonderland and European royalty for good measure. The young members of the Montague and Capulet clans dominate Act 1, swaggering about the stage in multihued hair, brightly colored Plasticine platform shoes, sunglasses, vinyl codpieces, and roller-blade kneeguards. They’re smoking something illicit in those decorative crack pipes too, we presume, which helps to explain why the marauding ruffians are always at each others’ throats.
The action is played out in front of Gary M. Hoff’s steel latticework set, which is both functional and visually compelling. So are the starry backlighting effects by Phillip Franck.
But save for Henry Haggard in the pivotal role of Friar Laurence, there is nary a Shakespearean performance on hand. Everyone else makes do with the conceptual yoke that has been placed upon them, some doing better with it than others. Mark Cabus tries mightily to make something of his hip, brash Mercutio, but his turn turns tedious. Matt Chiorini is a little better as Benvolioat least we get his fey drift. Peter Fitzkee and David A. Cooper manage to project some nice energy as supporting juvenile delinquents Abraham and Balthasar. Todd Denning glares with effective menace as Tybalt too.
Everyone else is weighted down, either by their roles or their elaborate costumes. Nan Gurley has some nice moments as Juliet’s nurse, but her characterization is generally unfocused. Robert M. Hefley and Glory Kissel stomp their way through the action as the senior Capulets, looking like a sitcom pairing of Czar Nicholas II and the Queen of Hearts. And Denice Hicks as Queen Escalus seems overly concerned with keeping her 4-foot-high headpiece on straight as she rolls onto the set’s imperious scaffolding.
Then there are Jo Benincasa as Romeo and Sarah Bloom as Juliet. She is blond, fairly graceful, and not much of an actressshe’s also supposed to be 14, which she most obviously is not. He is dark-haired, awkward, and not much of an actorthough he does do a nice job of throwing himself up the balcony wall in the most famous love scene of all time.
Andrew Hopson’s original background music is dramatic synth-pop at its best, and Miles Aubrey wanders the stage throughout the evening, wireless electric guitar strapped over his shoulder, playing atmospheric riffs and singing occasionally. In fact, Aubrey’s pretty good, which makes one think that maybe this whole production should have been turned into a modern-rock musical. That might at least have helped to justify the elaborate costumes and might’ve made worrying about Shakespeare superfluous.
One can’t help but wonder, though, what might’ve happened here if all that money had been spent on other directing and acting talent instead of on enhancing designer Fragomeli’s portfolio.
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