Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Romeo and Juliet"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


"ROMEO AND JULIET"

by William Shakespeare
directed by Elizabeth Wightman

Romeo … Usman Akeju
Juliet … Elizabeth Hayes
Peter … Holly B. Laird
Benvolio … Olivia Leitermann
Mercutio … Bob Mussett
Paris … Jonathan Reinharth
Chorus; Nurse; Friar … Mitchell Sellers
Tybalt … Michael Simon
Prince; Apothecary … Jasper Weinberg
Lady Capulet … Elizabeth A. Wightman

A personal theatre memory was conjured up when I attended actress-director Elizabeth Wightman’s experimental ROMEO AND JULIET, produced by her newly-formed MAGARIStage Company which promises to perform plays in non-traditional spaces: back in my college days (those days of environmental and agitprop theatre, nudity, and the growing cult of the director as god), one of my directing class’ assignments was for each student to stage a scene in an outdoor setting that mirrored the emotions of its characters (the assignment seemed to be more an exercise in the director’s personality rather than the playwright’s vision). I chose a scene from THE TEMPEST and conventionally staged it in the Art Department’s concrete storage area, it being the closest thing on campus that resembled a desolate island; the oddest direction was a moment from GREASE being staged in an actual cemetery (i.e., to point out that the 1950s were dead and gone): “Sandy Dumbrowski” sat on a grave with her princess phone and make-up kit, warbling her “Sandra Dee” reprise en route to becoming a Pink Lady (I am NOT making this up). I got snagged into playing Octavius for the closing scene of JULIUS CAESAR; since Brutus and his fellow assassins had sunk so low, honor-wise, the student director chose the town dump for his setting (like, these Romans were society’s dregs, man!). “Brutus” had it easy: he remained on ground level and fell on his sword without a hitch. I, “Octavius”, was poised on top of a mountain of refuse, complete with flies --- for some forgotten reason, the director had me camp it up, as well, giving new meaning to the exchange, “Fellow, wilt thou bestow thy time with me?” / “Ay, if Messala will prefer me to you.” Thus, “Brutus” expired and I, on cue, pranced down to earth, waving my arms like ribbons in the breeze while trying not to break my neck, feeling like an ass --- this may have begun my resistance towards Bard interpretation.

Ms. Wightman’s take on Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers was nowhere as odd as the above experience but as I have thrice seen her perform with a particular cutting-edge company, I wonder how much of its aesthetics have rubbed off on her versus future MAGARIStage offerings boiling down to Ms. Wightman making do with whatever space is available to her. For ROMEO AND JULIET, the intimate MIT Coffeehouse thus became “Café Verona” run by Lady Capulet with cousin Tybalt as the maitre d’ and daughter Juliet being the waitress as well as the sun; the Chorus became the counterman/bartender, pouring drinks, serving food and commenting on the two hours’ traffic. A few moments “clicked” in concept if not in particular insights: the opening street brawl, now an indoors slug fest; the Capulet ball as a catered after-hours affair (Mercutio wore a hula skirt); a cell phone used to summon a doctor after the fatal duel; the banished Romeo being beamed in through a television set; the Apothecary transformed into a 60s hippie --- and there was a hushed, magical moment when the Chorus set the mood for the Balcony Scene by drawing a gate across the service area, dimming the lights and allowing a moment of silence. As the performance wore on, though, Ms. Wightman’s concept began to fray after so much rubbing against the grain of Shakespeare’s plot --- having begun with a coffeehouse ROMEO, Ms. Wightman ended with a ROMEO staged in a coffeehouse; how else could she explain why Friar Lawrence repeatedly met the lovers there rather than in confessional, church or tomb, that the newlyweds consummated their wedding night at one of the tables, that the drugged Juliet was laid out like the daily special --- an audience can suspend its belief just so much. Ms. Wightman also made some odd directorial choices: the classic verse of the lovers’ first meeting was eliminated altogether, reducing the courtship to two kids instantly hot for each other; Romeo killed Tybalt by snapping his neck, at odds with the Nurse’s later line about seeing Tybalt’s wounds; Romeo killed the meek, weaponless Paris by stabbing him up against a wall --- at least the good Friar didn’t pass Juliet a bottle of ketchup to drink instead of her potion.

In addition to performing spaces, Ms. Wightman may also have to make do for now with grab-bag ensembles, varying in technique: Usman Akeju, a husky-voiced Romeo, fared better in lyrical than in passionate declamation, the latter causing him to congest horribly (there is declamation and there is mere shouting); Elizabeth Hayes, donning a waitress’ apron for a third time, is not one of Nature’s Juliets (nor is she an Ophelia or Miranda) --- her spunky high spirits make her a natural Rosalind or Beatrice (a pal as well as a sweetheart); her heated defiance towards her mother could even lead to an outraged Isabella or one of Lear’s wicked daughters; Mr. Akeju and Ms. Hayes’ whole-hearted physical affection, at times bordering on the steamy, filled in what was missing from their readings (“when in doubt, smooch” seemed to be the rule). Mitchell Sellers, whose production of UNDER MILK WOOD, two years ago, was a brilliant example of experimenting with theatre space, tripled as the Chorus, the Friar and a snap-diva Nurse, cocktail glass ne’er too far away; no doubt Mr. Sellers’ own directorial eye gave his Chorus the presence needed to bind as much of the ensemble together. The nicest surprise, yet no surprise at all, really, was Ms. Wightman in the minor role of Lady Capulet. She is slowly developing into a Shakespearean player, herself, and may she not be forced into trouser roles or made to feel abashed about her statuesque appearance, any longer (I still want to see Ms. Wightman take on O’Neill’s Josie Hogan); drawn up to her full height, hers is a regal presence and her warm, throaty voice, which she unwrapped at this year’s Sonnet-thon as something shiny and new, is deepening into what promises to become a beautiful instrument. Though it is too early to say what sort of director she may turn out to be, Ms. Wightman is defintely an actress on which to keep an eye --- ideally, on a conventional stage with the audience indoors, not outside with the garbage and the flies.

HELP SAVE BOSTON’S HISTORIC GAIETY THEATRE!

"Romeo and Juliet" (4 - 7 August)
MIT Artists Behind the Desk / MAGARIStage
MIT Coffeehouse, MIT Stratton Student Center, 84 Massachusetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 253-4720

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

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