Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Romeo & Juliet—Portland Actors Conservatory—SW Portland

“What’s in a Name?”

This offbeat production of the Bard’s classic is directed by Paul Angelo.  It will be playing at the PAC’s space, 1436 SW Montgomery St., through March 1st.  Be warned, it is street parking so you should allow plenty of time to find a space.  Also, they are having their Gala fund-raiser, Verona Nights, at the Benson Hotel on Saturday, March 7th.  For more information, go to their site at www.actorsconservatory.com or call 503-274-1717.

There seems to be a plethora of plays lately about identities and what defines us as to who we are and our place in the world.  This, one might construe, is the ultimate version of what happens when you cross over pre-determined lines or simply ignore them.  Love and Youth are fearless and seem to have no boundaries.  But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t responsibilities and consequences for breaking or ignoring those limits.

This may be the most oft produced play of Mr. Shakespeare’s.  Some film versions that come to mind are the rather melodramatic one from the 30’s, with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer then, there was a rather dull one with Laurence Harvey in the 50’s.  And the rather good but traditional one of Zefferelli’s in the 60’s, the excellent musical, West Side Story, and the modernized version with DiCaprio and Danes a few years back.  This latest incarnation is of a modern variety and takes place on an essentially bare stage, with impressive background music (Hal Logan, Andrew Bray and Jackson Walker) to enhance the moods.

I’m going to break a long-standing tradition and give out plot devices that might be considered “spoilers,” or revealing things the audience should discover.  I’m doing this mainly because I’m assuming most people know that—warning, spoiler alert-- R&J die, as well as some others.  Although, some of us were chatting about the death scenes at one point in the lobby of one of the film versions and a couple stalked out angrily, saying, “oh, thanks for spoiling the ending for us!”  I guess the lesson here is not to assume, so one or two of you may not know the basic story.

Another innovative step the Director made is that he has cross-gender cast some of the male roles, such as Mercutio, Tybalt and Benvolio and has double or triple cast some roles.  This gives the atmosphere of a bare-bones, grass-roots presentation, which allows more attention to be paid to the text and character development, than to the pageantry surrounding it, which can be distracting.  The only downside to this otherwise engaging production is that, at times, the voices during the intense scenes become so shrill sometimes that you lose some of the words.  Use the diaphragm, folks, not the throat, as my acting teacher use to say.

The story, in brief, for those of you who don’t know it, is that two feuding, wealthy families, the Capulets (Juliet, Tybalt, Nurse, et. al.) and Montagues (Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, et. al.) have managed to keep an uneasy peace in their town of Verona.  That is until two of their young pups, Juliet (Shannon Mastel) and Romeo (Murren Kennedy) see, not an adversary across from them, but a human being.  And the fact that they both are in their teens and, as mention before, are fearless, they see nothing wrong in declaring their love.  But, unfortunately, the parents, in particular, Lord Capulet (Jeff Gorham), are vigorously opposed to such a union, as is a rather violent cousin, Tybalt (Taylor Jean Grady), an expert swordsman, the Prince of Cats.

Friends of Romeo’s, Mercutio (Halie Becklyn), a rather coarse, loud-mouth, semi-mentor of his and Benvolio (Gwendolyn Duffy), a cousin, also see a problem in these star-crossed lovers’ union.  These  teens, with their raging hormones, are not without their supporters, though, as the worldly Nurse (Alexandria Castelle) is Juliet’s confidant and go-between for them.  And there is Friar Laurence (Murri Lazaroff-Babin) a tutor of sorts to Romeo, who tries to help their plight which, instead, backfires.  Juliet’s father, when not in a rage over these events decides, in his ignorance, that all that is needed is that she be married, as soon as possible, to a more acceptable suitor, Paris (Therman Sisco Jr.).

By the end of this ill-fated story, five young people are dead, for the simple reasons that two families chose not to get along.  Sad, sad, sad.  Any implied relationship to current events of cultures, races, countries not being able to find common grounds of mutual acceptance is purely…intentional.

The staging of the fight scenes (Kristen Mun) is definitely some of the highlights of the show.  The deaths of Tybalt and Mercurtio are simply but beautifully staged and Capulet’s violent confrontation with his family is both frightening but dance-like in its execution.  And Director, Angelo, always produces plays with some interesting twists and turns to the style.  He has chosen his cast well and I applaud the cross-gender casting.  The best person for the role, regardless of age, gender or color—absolutely!

Gorman is a pro and is always worth watching onstage.  His maniacal Capulet is quite an original—in short, a human monster.  Grady seems possessed when playing the hot-blooded Tybalt until she realizes that she has caused a death and then the rage seems to dissipate, and she appears very human.  A wonderful creation, hope to see more of her onstage.  Becklyn alienates us with her character’s bravado but then reclaims us with her very touching death scene.  Nicely done.

Casteele gives us an unusually coarse and crude, Nurse, and closer in age, it seems, to Juliet, so that they identify with each other somewhat, and it works.  Mastel and Kennedy do well in presenting the high-strung lovers.  And Lazaroff-Babin as the dim-witted servant, Peter, and then flip-flops to the humane Friar, almost steals the show.  His versatility and talent is very obvious.  Bravo!

I recommend this show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.