ROMEO AND JULIETBy William Shakespeare
Directed by Jeff Swearingen
Live Improvised Underscore – Thiago Nascimento
Set Design/Scenic Painting – Clare Floyd De Vries
Scenic Painting Assistance – Melissa Patrello
Lighting Design – Brandon Cunningham
Costume Design – Eric J. Criner
Costumes – Costumes by Dusty
Stage Combat/Fight Choreography – Mick McCormick
Romeo – Doak Campbell Rapp
Montague – Marcus Miller
Lady Montague – Marielle Wyatt
Benvolio – David Allen Norton
Abraham – Joseph Nativi
Balthasar – Jake Allen
Juliet – Taylor Donnelson
Capulet – Logan Beutel
Lady Capulet – Laney Neumann
Tybalt – Jeremy LeBlanc
Sampson – Jaxon Beeson
Gregory – Jonah Johnson
Nurse – Kennedy Waterman
Peter – Joseph Nativi
Escalus – Brian Wright, II
Paris – Tex Patrello
Mercutio – Chris Rodenbaugh
Friar Laurence – Josh LeBlanc
Friar John – Marielle Wyatt
An Apothecary – Tess Cutillo
Reviewed Performance: 2/14/2015
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
18th century actor, director and manager, David Garrick, had great reverence for the Bard but also heavily altered several of his plays. According to the Folger Shakespeare Library, his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in 1748 cut some of the text but also expanded the climatic tomb scene, inserting several minutes between Romeo’s poisoning and Juliet’s awakening so that the lovers could speak once more before death. This addition was so popular it became the standard acting version in Great Britain and the United States for the next one hundred years.
20th century adaptations include ballets, operas, films and musicals. Productions have cast all male actors or all female actors. Unbelievably, it was almost twenty years ago that Bax Luhrmann directed his 1996 urban rock, cult hit film version. My first real introduction to R & J was the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film with junior high heart throb Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, Michael York playing Tybalt (Fun side note – Zeffirelli wrote in his autobiography that Paul McCartney was originally asked to play Romeo - if only!).
In another of Fun House Theatre and Film’s Shakespeare adaptations, Hamlet performed in Spring 2013, Director Jeff Swearingen has mildly condensed Romeo and Juliet into a comfortable two hour sitting, some cuts not even felt while others stabbed too deeply. The short marriage scene, Friar Laurence preceding, was beautifully simplified to a silent, spot lit diorama. What I believe were bigger deductions came during the Capulet’s masquerade ball where Romeo first spots Juliet. The scene was so short, all the spying and “across the room” moments were lost, and therefore the lovers’ initial setup. Where the cutting pen should have been bolder was the final scene, Romeo and Juliet already dead, the parents mourning, and Shakespeare has the friar drone on and on, reiterating what the audience has just seen; a completely unnecessary monologue in dire need of slicing or deletion.
Blocking choices also had hits and misses. Actors kept speaking upstage, the worst being the balcony scene, Juliet forced to speak upstage to Romeo. Their last scene together had their heads down and turned away, when seeing both faces was so important in that moment.
Characterizations from the entire ensemble went from good to great. Iambic pentameter went pretty much out the window, many lines sped through in mass urgency. Supporting characters, for the most part, understood their character’s intent. Both the two houses’ servants, of Montague and Capulet, kept the action flowing and nicely assisted the leads, especially during the sword duels.
Mick McCormick’s stage combat and fight choreography was on such a professional level, the duels became highlights of the evening, leaving me watching intently. Their difficulty was heightened by the intricate moves but also by the addition of long knives, so that several of the actors dueled with two weapons simultaneously. I’ve not often seen that in adult productions, so watching young men that adroit in their swordsmanship made it all the more thrilling. McCormick staged one move that I hope was meant to be funny. In one of the opening scenes, the boys are scrapping and fighting in the square, and when demanded to stop, they dropped their swords flat, like singers doing the mic drop at the end of their song – boom. It made me giggle.
In only a few short scenes, Marcus Miller and Marielle Wyatt, playing Lord and Lady Montague, were appropriately suited as Romeo’s parents. Josh LeBlanc’s Friar Laurence was young, reverent, and well played. Escalus, Verona’s Prince and the play’s narrator of sorts, was nobly performed by Brian Wright, II, the warring issues of the two houses set up in his short monologues.
Capulet and Lady Capulet, played by Logan Beutel and Laney Neumann, had important scenes, including their dissolving of Juliet’s behavior. Beutel’s elder Capulet came across as merely slow, with no age delineation, and I feared he had taken cold medicine beforehand. Beutel finally came to life during his ranting ultimatum to Juliet.
Neumann, however, understood Juliet’s mother, a woman who did not know her. Her lady was aloof to her daughter’s pleas, and in a role where Lady C usually glides through scenes, unaware of the child she did not raise, Neumann’s facial expressions beautifully conveyed confusion in the moment, disdain at Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris, and the all too late realization of her daughter’s worth. Neumann’s is an understated yet powerful performance.
In an interesting character twist, Tex Patrello’s Paris, set to both marry Juliet and raise Montague’s social status, was more buffoonish than the usual arrogant nobleman. Playing it comically lent a more interesting relationship between him and Juliet, adding another layer to her disdain and rejection.
Jeremy LeBlanc’s Tybalt, the uptight nephew of Lady Capulet, was not as off the handle as written. His loyalty to the Capulet house was obvious, but LeBlanc’s characterization left him understated and quiet in scenes; that is until Tybalt’s accusations and his duels, where the actor also came more to life and showed nice acting prowess.
I questioned both the director and Doak Campbell Rapp’s interpretation of Romeo right from his first entrance. He entered more sleepy-eyed and lethargic than as a love-lorn teenager at losing his Rosaline so recently. Rapp mumbled and jumbled lines that on occasion sounded rote; he moved numbly and bumbly, his actions difficult to interpret. When spying Juliet at the ball, Rapp perked up a bit as his Romeo gathered some interest. Rapp ambled around the stage, his shoulders hunched and head down. Director Swearingen and Rapp saw Romeo as an indulgent, rather absent-minded young man of the day, one without responsibility or concern, much like some teenagers today. In that regard, Rapp’s characterization was fairly on target, but his performance only truly awoke with his killing of Tybalt. After that, the light in his eyes came on and the rest of his performance was note worthy. Yes, there were still some odd moments, but Romeo’s intent was better defined, the apothecary and his death scene more urgent and resolved. Rapp’s full performance was well-rounded, but one with a too vague first act that needed refinement.
Taylor Donnelson, as Juliet, had a good handle on her character’s intent as well as on Juliet’s position within her family. Then Juliet and Romeo meet. At first, Donnelson played Juliet correctly, teasingly coy and polite, but letting Romeo know his advances are inappropriate . . . and then, as directed, she simply stood there while he kissed her. No girl of that age, Juliet is not yet fourteen, and in that era would be so nonchalant. Coming unexpectedly, Juliet would have been shocked. In that regard, Donnelson needs to forget today’s social norms and better understand a young girl’s behavior in the late 1500’s. However, all her other scenes were nicely performed, especially the humorous scene between Juliet and Nurse, and the heart wrenching scene as her father condemns her to either marriage to Paris or banishment. Donnelson played Juliet’s anguish and pain passionately, and her overriding love sublimely showed in her face, her hand on Romeo’s face, and by her kiss. While a bit quick, Juliet’s death scene was taken with great care and resolve, and lovingly played. The role showcased Donnelson’s talent as she was perfectly cast.
Chris Rodenbaugh took his role as Mercutio to heart and chewed the entire set up with his performance. High energy was the order of the day, Rodenbaugh hardly pausing in place on stage. Mercutio was brash, cock-sure, and annoying clever. Easy with the laugh, easier with the sword, Rodenbaugh played him full out and fun. In a quite different, over-the-top and rather disturbing interpretation of the famous “Queen Mab” monologue, he ramped up the speech until he screamed and shrieked the last several lines into unintelligence, especially when Mercutio is simply jiving Romeo for falling in love. Other than that, Rodenbaugh was on a heightened level, his performance riveting, and easily a highlight of the production.
Hands down, the most entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, and then suddenly heartbreaking character was Nurse by Kennedy Waterman. This was one young actress with talent to spare. Waterman quite simply “got” Nurse; she understood both Nurse’s place in the Capulet house, her undying love for Juliet, and her mama bear devotion to Juliet’s well being and happiness at all costs. Waterman’s comedic timing was par none – each beat exact and placed for the biggest audience response – and boy did she ever get that response. I could actually feel the audience’s attention upon her entrances, myself included, she was that much fun to watch. The best scene of the production was her and Juliet’s when Nurse returns with news of Romeo. Her mocked moans and groans to tease Juliet were lovely comedic bits. Waterman’s off hand “tuts” and hand pauses were moments of timing perfection. Yet, Waterman’s Nurse is no silly hag; the scene where she tells Romeo to “Stand up” and be a man was powerful and strong, and her comforting Juliet after her father’s demand, suggesting maybe it’s better she marry Paris, was the ultimate tearjerker, all due to Waterman’s performance. This is one actress I want to see on the stage again, and very soon.
Equally as talented, but in a different genre, was the set design and scenic painting by Clare Floyd DeVries, with painting assistance by Melissa Patrello. In a multi-tasked, cleverly-designed, one piece set, DeVries created one that gently moved in and out of locations from one side to the other. A practical water fountain flowed to an alleyway or hallway entrance/exit, on to the front of the greystone Montague’s home, across to the red stonework of Capulet’s front entrance, and then to Friar’s home table and chairs. Upstage stairs became town center or the tomb’s entrance; the wrought iron gate to mausoleums or the apothecary’s lair. The open down stage area became both the town center or, painted in red and black checkerboard tiles, the Capulet’s hall. A rectangular platform moved from the square to become both Juliet’s bed and her funeral slab, its only distraction that it often moved when used.
Costuming by Dusty, with design by Eric J. Criner, also played with the red and black colors of the two houses. Royalty wore hues of purple; all Montagues, their servants and friends wore black or had black accented clothing; the Capulet team in shades of red. I found it interesting that Capulet nephewTybalt wore black with red accents on his doublet, as if working for both sides. Criner’s choices and additions were finely detailed - women’s gowns appropriately drop-sleeved and tightly cinched, the men in tights, loose breeches, ruffled sleeves, vests or doublets, Nurse in traditional blouse, skirt, apron and dust cap. All men wore wide belts to hold swords; women had jeweled necks, royalty wore medals and such. The set and costumes elegantly set the feel of Elizabethan age.
A wonderful inclusion, and smart of Swearingen in the age of iPod, Beats by Dre and iTunes, is the improvised underscore by Thiago Nascimento. Sitting behind an upright piano, he watched the action onstage and literally played to their strengths. His melodies reminded me of piano or organ accompaniment in movie houses during silent films, and Nascimento’s comic and dramatic timing was as excellent as the actors.
But oh, the lighting in the Plano Children’s Theatre space. Unless it was a distinctive choice by designer Brandon Cunningham, or there are simply not enough lighting instruments, never once have I seen that stage fully lit. When Romeo stands center stage, lovingly speaking of Juliet, in darkness, well, that’s a problem. Many times, a single, harshly green, red or blue-filtered instrument was used to illuminate an actor, or else some actors were seen and some were not, in every scene. The only well-lit areas were far stage left in Friar’s home. Even the balcony scene was poorly lit, Romeo the only one in the light. The wonderfully-painted set had an odd hue to it due to the light’s filters, a shame for such fine work. On a positive note, the light sequence over Juliet’s body in the tomb, from evening through night and into early morning, was subtle but beautifully moving.
Except for swords, hand props were minimal, but in a space where audiences are close to the action, it would be good to have liquid in the vials and for Romeo to hand real coins to the apothecary.
Fun House Theatre and Film’s Romeo and Juliet is solid theatre - engaging, entertaining, and well worth their always low price of admission. Tickets may be cheap but this production certainly is not. Visually appealing, with several noteworthy performances, it’s still difficult to believe all were played by people high school age and younger. To not show up . . . well then, I bite my thumb at you, sir.
Fun House Theatre and Film
@ Plano Children’s Theatre
1301 Custer Road
Plano, TX 75075
Plays through February 22nd
Friday-Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2:30 pm
All tickets are $8.00 each.
For information and to purchase tickets online, go to www.funhousetheatreandfilm.com or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.