Posted by: strugglesome | April 1, 2012

Of Love and Other Demons: The Lantern Theater presents Romeo and Juliet

I must admit, the older I get, the more ridiculous Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet becomes. It reads like a beautifully written after school special, in the end, about two young people who meet, fall in love, and make some really bad decisions. If you added a pregnancy pact and recreational drug use it would be a Lifetime Original Film. As it is, it’s a rather troubling love story, a monument to impulse and youth in revolt, a warning to all feuding families, settle your feuds, or be more choosy with your guest lists. And heavier on your security.

But despite all this, much to the delight of every high school English teacher in the United States, people just keep on producing this play. And this year 9th and 10th grade students can catch this tale of star-crossed lovers at the Lantern Theater, whose annual Shakespeare production is the Bard’s version of Twilight. Like all Shakespeare productions, the trick lies not in the novelty of the story, but in the way that story gets told. And the way this production tells this simple story is oddly fussy at best and painfully tedious at worst.

Directed by Charles McMahon and starring Sean Lally and Nicole Erb as the titular pair of lovers, the story is staged an a beige environment of fake-looking bricks and an awkward archway (set design by Meghan Jones). In a vaguely Renaissance world, marked with doublets and stays, chemises and brocades (excellently designed costumes that don’t quite fit into the production by Mary Folino), Romeo (a spitting and spastic Lally who plays the role with emotional energy that is utterly accurate if painful to watch) meets his Juliet (a whining and thoughtless Erb) and of course they fall madly in love. McMahon has peppered the production with odd silent exchanges that have his hapless actors making quick entrances and exits to give us, one supposes, some sort of atmosphere, all lit by Shelley Hicklin’s neat lighting design and scored by Daniel Perelstein’s lovely soundscape. But instead of seeing a fair Verona, where we lay our scene, we see a group of actors trying to make work a direction that extends an already long show even longer. Just once I would love to see a production of this play that really honors that whole “two hours traffic of our stage” business as outlined by the opening Chorus (declaimed by Frank X). So Romeo forgets his precious Rosamund (the lady he’s moaning about at the start of the play, discussed but never encountered) and commits his young emo-band heart to Juliet, who, by the way, is all of 14, as her nurse (Ceal Phelan) and mother (K.O. DelMarcelle) are quick to point out. They want her married to her cousin Paris (Jake Blouch, who also plays Tybalt, Peter, and a host of other characters), but of course Juliet only has eyes for her stalker, Romeo, and no threats from her father (played by Leonard Haas) can deter love’s true desires. Instead of, oh, I don’t know, skipping town, trying to make a go of it in Turin or Florence, the unlucky pair stay in Verona, marry in secret, and set in motion a series of events that lead directly to their deaths. Why do we make high schoolers read this, again?

One of the many difficulties of staging this so staged show, is making the audience understand and recall the feverish obsession of young love, devoid as it is of logic and perspective, but filled to the brim with hope and desire. And that’s not an easy task to charge any two young actors with, but hey, as we  learned from A League of Their Own, if it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. So while we can sympathize with the difficult tasks that Lally and Erb have in front of them, the sad truth is that neither of them discharges their duties particularly well. Part of this might lie in the fact that the two actors have all the chemistry together of an English class. Lally’s moaning and groaning Romeo is met by Erb’s shrill and petty Juliet, in a combination that is realistically juvenile, if not all that interesting to watch. But part of what makes this production flag is the pace, which should be breakneck and exuberant, but instead is sluggish and torpid. McMahon’s cuts are perplexing, he axes some of the most well-known exchanges in the show (it’s really not Romeo and Juliet unless someone bites their thumb) in favor of maintaining many of the scenes that, as historians will tell us, were actually penned to give doubling actors a bit of a breather. And speaking of doubling, this production uses it, well, weirdly. It’s rare to see a production of any Shakespeare play that doesn’t double one character or other, who has that kind of cash to hire a 30 person cast for a non-musical? But typically most modern productions try to use doubling purposefully, pairing two characters that have some kind of allegiance, or connection, something that has significance for the audience. This production, however, pairs people who have no connection, or worse, are enemies, which is frankly confusing. For example, Ceal Phelan plays both Lord Montague, Romeo’s father, and Juliet’s Nurse, her closest confidant and maternal figure. Haas plays Juliet’s volatile father with the same skill as the apothecary who seals his daughters doom. Blouch and Mehan are permitted to stay on their respective family sides, but their frequent exits and re-entrances in virtually identical outfits make it almost impossible to tell when they are playing whom. It’s strange for a play that is this familiar to be this confusing.

The reality is, there is nothing truly terrible about this production, it certainly doesn’t butcher the play and there is no wretched gaffe to make a Shakespeare lover blanche. It simply is about as beige as it’s set, it has no spark, not fire within it to keep this preposterous love story in the realm of the romantic. In this presentation, all we can see are the flaws, the many ways in which Romeo and his Juliet are rather foolish and extremely young, painfully earnest and deeply impulsive. It’s as hard to watch them make mistakes as it is to watch a child first learn to walk or an episode of 16 and Pregnant. You can’t intervene, you can’t fix it, you just have to stand by in mild horror and wait for the tragedy to come. And come it does, but after three hours, it’s almost a relief.

The Lantern Theater Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet has been extended until April 8th. Tickets are available here.


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