Director Barry Scott's new TSU production of Romeo & Juliet is a surprise success in this somewhat low-energy Nashville theatrical summer. While Bard adaptations are old hat, there's definitely something to be said for pulling it off with style and meaning. By moving the classic love story into Music City's urban neighborhoods, where Montagues and Capulets square off as rival gangs, Scott focuses attention on the issues of inner-city African American relations, Bloods/Crips warfare and the powerful role guns play in contemporary society.
Scott's adaptation takes some liberties with the Shakespeare by inserting local references and trimming the dialogue to maintain flow and plot clarity. But the Bard isn't shortchanged. We get all the important poetry when we need it, and the large, energetic cast—a mixed bag of young players and experienced vets—plows forward under Scott's sharp pacing, creating a credibly dark world out of which love blossoms, only to be trampled by violence and misunderstanding.
Mark Collino's aggressive lighting and marvelous set—an appropriately drab yet sensual cityscape of Nashville duplexes—add immeasurably to the proceedings. The cast and crew efficiently manage a fair number of set changes, during which quick interludes (e.g., break-dancing) sustain the urban atmosphere.
Scott pushes the envelope further with a technique he has experimented with previously—musical underscoring—which here hardly ever lets up. Hip-hop textures alternate with dramatic orchestral themes to drive the emotional content, much like a film soundtrack.
The acting is truly an ensemble effort, and despite some of the more youthful players' inexperience—diction, for example, could be better—there 's a spirit afoot that keeps the tragic tale alive. In fact, the mise-en-scène is so vibrant that movement alone seems to successfully carry some passages.
The older thespians include Elan Crawford's colorfully edgy Lady Capulet and Michael McLendon's sonorous Lord Montague, plus John Silvestro as a winningly supportive Friar Laurence and Marc Mazzone as an officious Prince, who functions as the police figure amid the anger and gunplay.
Despite their shortcomings, the younger actors usually shine. Tony Insignares is an imposing Tybalt, LaTorious R. Givens is a vigilant Nurse and Nicki Staggs is riveting as a cross-gender Benvolio. Travis R. Cooper II is especially good as the animated, often wry Mercutio.
Finally, there are the lovers. Celeste M. Cooper enacts Juliet with sincerity, warmth and charm, and Aaron Rosebud's Romeo has the right blend of raw passion and youthful idealism. Their balcony scene, played outside a shabby second-floor window, is a classic of its kind.
To extend the community discussion about issues such as gangs and guns, panel discussions are scheduled following some of the performances. For more information, call 963-5742.
Yet another piece of thoughtful and excellent theater is on the boards at Actors Bridge Ensemble, where director Vali Forrister has mounted a pulsating production of Jose Rivera's Marisol.
In Rivera's version of the end-times, the tribulations visited upon the earth presage neither the return of a Messiah nor the end of suffering and evil. Instead, "God is old and dying," according to heroine Marisol's guardian angel, and the fight is on between heavenly powers and chaos itself. Humankind is left to fend for itself, with compassion as its guiding principle.
Marisol, played by Jessika Malone, arrives at that conclusion after undergoing crucial emotional and spiritual upheaval in a world turned frighteningly upside down.
The playwright doles out religious imagery and proffers thorny theological ideas throughout his metaphor-rich scenario, which is realized with brooding intensity, thanks in no small part to Paul Gatrell's eerily striking three-sided set and Richard Davis' strategic cascades of hi-tech lighting.
Forrister has a lot of room to work with in her open staging, yet the action—Act 1 in particular—is generally tightly orchestrated. The director wrings lively performances out of the cast as well, with Malone's fervent and sympathetic Marisol leading the way. In addition, Fiona Soul makes for a uniquely combative angel figure, Misty Lewis is good as Marisol's friend (then throws in an unexpected turn as a skinhead), and Cynthia Tucker returns to ABE (following solid work in A Bright Room Called Day) with two more strong and distinct characterizations.
Pete Vann draws a lot of attention with a series of four explicit portrayals that epitomize the madness of Marisol's brave new world. His energy is sublime as he moves commandingly through the requisite desperation, balanced with moments of black humor that lend the play extra bite.
Marisol is a complex piece, and it's hard to imagine any theatergoer grasping all its meaning in one viewing. But it's a rewarding challenge to try.
The play runs through Aug. 3 at Belmont's Black Box Theatre.
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