Saturday, January 25, 2014

Romeo and Juliet under the Portico

Tinkering with Romeo and Juliet is a venerable theatrical pastime.  I have seen lesbian productions, gay productions, blue-men-in-Tahiti productions, even a sci-fi production set on the planet Venus.  Spotlighters' new production of the Shakespeare classic moves the setting gently backward to ancientGreece.  The result is a neo-classical, black-and-white tragedy stripped of the Renaissance pageantry.

The concept works quite well.  The lines of conflict in this complex family feud are crystal clear.  The tragic passion of Romeo and Juliet burns at white heat from beginning to end.  The ominous role of Friar Laurence, who in mistaken benevolence guides the star-crossed couple into an illicit marriage and into a fatal game of poisons, is underlined by his elaborate side-stage chapel and laboratory.  The clean neo-classical set by Alan Zemla, the lighting design by Fuzz Roark, and the costumes by Marie Bankerd all give a moonlit, dreamy atmosphere for Lance Bankerd's spare direction of the work.

Patrick Gorirossi (Romeo) and Caitlin Carbone (Juliet) place an unusual spin upon the romantic couple.  Gorirossi is a slightly-built, athletic Romeo who leaps around the stage as his infatuation for Juliet mounts and as he sinks ever more deeply into Shakespeare's lush metaphors for sudden love.  Carbone towers over him, a woman clearly older, more mature, and more self-possessed as she moves majestically around the stage.  One has the impression of a young student stunned by the beauty of his statuesque teacher---and of the teacher who immediately returns the forbidden desire.  The enthusiasm and passion of the doomed lovers only deepen as the plot thickens and the poetic riffs become more desperate.  In their speed of delivery, however, some of the more complex sentiments and poetic devices of Shakespeare remain unmined.

An excellent supporting cast gives the production further vigor and focus.  The stentorian Jeff Murray creates a Friar Laurence who is both wise and foolish in his efforts to help the unhappy couple.  His charity is balanced by his incompetence in the contrived affair of the poisons, doomed to backfire.  His closing speech of repentance is moving rather than pro forma.  Nicole Mullins's ebullient Nurse energetically brings both comic relief and added pathos to the deteriorating romance of Juliet.  Opening and closing the play with philosophical lines on the folly of fratricide, the Prince is customarily presented as an omniscient, god-like figure.  Joshua Thomas's prince, however, is refreshingly laid back.  He speaks more quietly than the rest of the cast.  He is often seated on the floor or partially hidden behind a pillar.  His is not the voice of magisterial declaration in the center of the town square.  His is a weary, world-worn voice of a sympathetic observer who has seen too much civil violence and who is well aware that his peace policies, such as banning duels and banishing Romeo, have little chance to alter the self-destructive human condition.

This tunic-and-portico version of Romeo and Juliet capably opens up the multiple tragic lines of the romance through its ensemble acting, firm direction, and stark neo-classical look.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Underwhelming Crimes

Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart has not aged gracefully.  Acclaimed as a new version of Southern Gothic---right up there with Faulkner and Carson Mc Cullers---the drama won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  At a distance of thirty years, however, the play's construction seems amateurish and the attempts at humor faint.  The new lackluster production of the work at Everyman Theatre does little to galvanize this period piece.

Loosely based on Chekhov's Three Sisters, the play focuses on the travails of three sisters who are reunited in their Deep South home (Hazlehurst, Mississippi) due to a series of personal mishaps.  The three Magrath sisters are genuine Southern grotesques.  Lenny (Beth Hylton) is a lonely spinster overwhelmed by her solitude as she celebrates her thirtieth anniversary.  Meg (Megan Anderson) is a country-western singer whose career has collapsed in the midst of an avalanche of professional lies.  Babe (Dorea Schmidt) has just shot her husband and is awaiting trial, with her unctious lawyer Barnette (Jamie Smithson) trying to unravel the mysterious details of the assault.

As the plot langorously unfolds, there are conflicts, betrayals, and revelations of family secrets among the unhappy trio.  Much of the script bears the faults of a novice playwright.  Nostalgia periodically breaks in with "Do you remember when?" monologues.  Information on the characters (such as age and romantic history) is not so artfully shoehorned into the dialogue.  Family secrets ("Why did Mom kill herself?") are treated with predictable melodramatic conventions.  The temporal structure of the play is pat.  We open with poor Lenny weeping as she sings "Happy Birthday" to herself over one candle in an upturned glass.  We end with Meg, Babe, and Benny joyously singing "Happy Birthday" over thirty candles on a huge cake as they dance around the formica table and get ready to face life together.  Like the table, the joy seems plastic.  The efforts to wring humor out of this depressed  sorority only aroused polite laughter in the audience.

The direction of Susanna Gellert does little to help.  Like the script, the direction is often amateurish.  When "important moments" occur in the play, the lights suddenly dim and the audience is forced to focus on some solemnly delivered lines.  The actors have clearly done ther homework but the earnestness of their performances cannot overcome the cartoonish quality of the production.

Despite its problems, the production is visually stunning.  Debrah Booth's scenic design and Jay Herzong's lighting design handsomely recreate a middle-class Southern home dominated by its large modern kitchen complete with matching cabinets, ample range, and formica-esque counter in the aisle.  Designed by Levonne Lindsay, the costumes are pefectly chosen to bring out the distinctive personality and mood of each character.