Theater Review: Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Romeo & Juliet — Just the Tragic Story

Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production is a fine start to the company’s tenth anniversary season and an impressive realization of its founding mission statement — for this company, story and the actor’s craft trump directorial conceits.

Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare. Directed by Bobbie Steinbach and Allyn Burrows. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. The Strand Theatre, Dorchester, MA., through November 3rd.

By Ian Thal

uliet (Julie Ann Earls) and Romeo (Jason Bowen). Photo: Stratton McCrady

Juliet (Julie Ann Earls) and Romeo (Jason Bowen) in the ASP production of ROMEO & JULIET. Photo: Stratton McCrady

It is common in productions of Romeo & Juliet, based as it is on the economic and social upheavals of the late medieval and early modern eras, to try to make the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets into an allegory for some contemporary schism, another installment in the eternal hunt for the relevant. In productions around the world the feuding between the script’s noble families has been seen as an expression of partisan politics, ethnic conflict, and religious warfare. The ASP’s co-directors of Romeo & Juliet, Bobbie Steinbach and Allyn Burrows, thankfully eschew such agendas and embrace storytelling.

The cast, like the people of Dorchester, the six-square mile historic neighborhood surrounding the Strand Theatre, is racially diverse, as are the families of Montague, Capulet, and Prince Escalus, reflecting what is increasingly the reality of multi-cultural family life in twenty-first century America. Thus directors Steinbach and Burrows don’t have to emphasize the political dichotomies that often find favor when a classic is “updated.” The focus here is on the characters and the language that make the tragedy one of the most popular plays in the English language.

The Strand Theatre’s large auditorium presents interesting challenges to the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, a troupe accustomed to working in smaller and often unconventional performance spaces. Built in 1918 as a vaudeville and movie house, the performing space has balcony seating and a proscenium stage. Steinbach and Burrows manage to create intimacy by closing off the balcony, staging the play in the round, with most of the spectators in orchestra seating with additional seating on the stage. Audiences entering the Strand are greeted with banners hanging from the high ceilings. Painted in broad brush strokes of red and black on white cloth, these iconic images represent themes in the story: swords, lovers, and mourners. The same three colors dominate the production design, interspersed with neutral grays.

Those who savor Shakespearean vulgarity may be disappointed that the insults slung between the “two household frends, alike in dignitie” are flung too quickly in the first scene. The accusations serve as a soundtrack to the riot, which quickly establishes the setting. This production cuts the clowns Gregory and Sampson as well as Romeo’s parents (and the rarely performed scenes with the musicians and the kitchen staff) — but it still feels substantial, running over two hours.

Despite the Bard’s poetry, the lovers of the title are too impetuous, too moody, too yearning, and too determinedly adolescent to call for subtle performances from the leads. What is necessary is for the actors to make the sudden mood switches with ease. Jason Bowen’s Romeo is appropriately petulant, self-absorbed, infatuated, and rash. His handsome features have had him cast (often) as an inamorato in previous ASP productions. Julie Ann Earls, making her ASP debut as Juliet, delivers a strong rendition of the “Romeo is banished” speech. The measure of a stage Juliet and her Romeo is ultimately how much emotional heat they generate when they share a scene. Earls and Bowen are particularly effective in the quiet moments they have together, whether it is the sunrise meeting before Romeo flees into exile, or the scene in the Capulet family tomb, where the poisoned Romeo goes limp just as Juliet awakens from her drug-induced slumber in his dying arms.

Ken Baltin does a fine job of suggesting the sickness that lurks in the heart of old Capulet. He is amiably intoxicated while welcoming the youthful Montagues to his party, forbidding Tybalt from acting on the family vendetta. Yet he educates his daughter to hate the family of her beloved — and he proves to be a physically abusive father when he forces Juliet to consent to marry Paris.

The nimble Maurice Emmanuel Parent plays Mercutio as a manic, shamanic warrior whose connection with the spirit world does not end with the Queen Mab speech — he foreshadows the thematic struggles of life and death, passion and moderation physically, as when he mimes a tight-rope walk over the edge of the stage. Tellingly, this Mercutio is the only character at the Capulet family masque for whom the mask is more than a disguise or a fashion statement. He uses it as a device of power. Parent echoes this shamanic role when he later doubles as the Apothecary.

One of the peculiarities of Romeo & Juliet is that in it Shakespeare deconstructs the romantic comedy genre, with the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt in Act III signaling a tragic shift. Paula Langton, playing Juliet’s nurse, handles the change expertly, starting as a lusty loudmouth who is more demonstrative in her affection for her charge than Juliet’s own mother (played by Miranda Craigwell). She relives her own youth with vivacity, aiding the “paire of starre-crost lovers” in schemes that would only work in a comedy, yet she conveys her consciousness of her own responsibility for the tragedy with considerable power.

Antonio Ocampo-Guzman as Friar Laurence, the nurse’s counterpart in Romeo’s corner, is more subdued, occasionally delivering his lines in Spanish. Ben Rosenblatt plays Paris, Romeo’s rival for Juliet’s hand, rather unsympathetically. He is a much stronger presence as the clown Peter, one of the Capulet servants who are not cut in this production. The staging’s most unconventional casting move is to exchange Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin and confidante, for Benvolia, played by Paige Clark. The gender switch creates a romantic subplot that raises the stakes in her scenes with Romeo after Mercutio’s death.

 Tybalt (Omar Robinson), Romeo (Jason Bowen), and Benvolia (Paige Clark). Photo: Stratton McCrady.

Tybalt (Omar Robinson), Romeo (Jason Bowen), and Benvolia (Paige Clark) in the ASP production of ROMEO & JULIET. Photo: Stratton McCrady.

A play that features as many fights as Romeo & Juliet demands a strong violence designer. Trevor Olds, whose work recently graced Circuit Theatre Company’s production of The Valentine Trilogy, is proving to be an asset to Boston theater. (He is an undergraduate at Brown University.) His finest moment is the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt, in which Parent’s Mercutio is both overconfident and showy while Omar Robinson’s Tybalt (an odd casting choice) comes off as too much of an ungraceful bruiser to pass as the agile “King of Cats.” His Tybalt as too efficient and single-minded a killer to be distracted by the more adroit Mercutio’s arsenal of misdirection and psychological warfare.

Also pleasing is Susan Dibble’s choreography during the party at the house of Capulet. The dance goes through several stages, giving the impression of an increasingly tipsy group of masked revelers who must keep dancing lest they lose consciousness. The scene is buoyed by an evocative score of strings and percussion by sound designer and composer Arshan Gailus. The dance serves as a background for a dumbshow: Paris fails to win Juliet’s favor and then Romeo succeeds. This piece of choreographic storytelling also sets up Paris’ subsequent pursuit of the marriage — it is less about sincerity than spite.

Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production is a fine start to the company’s tenth anniversary season and an impressive realization of its founding mission statement — for this company, story and the actor’s craft trump directorial conceits. This staging will likely be the measuring stick for other presentations of Romeo & Juliet this season, with at least one more opening before this one closes.

Ian Thal is a performer and theatre educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere, and on occasion served on productions as a puppetry choreographer or dramaturg. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is currently working on his second full length play; his first, though as-of-yet unproduced, was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. Formally the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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