In her review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of La Traviata, Post-Dispatch music critic Sarah Bryan Miller points out that companies producing well-known operas face the challenge of "both keeping it interesting enough for the regulars and not too far off the beaten path for the newbies."
|Sigrid Wise and Reynaldo Piniella|
Photo by J. David Levy
She's right, in my experience, and not just about opera. Directing Shakespeare poses the same difficulty. How can you do something new and different that still respects the world of the play? Being innovative is easy; doing it while still respecting the source material is much harder.
All of which brings me to the Shakespeare Festival production of Romeo and Juliet, which (like La Traviata) runs through June 24th. In moving the action to something that looks like the present day (but with swords) and emphasizing the youthful impetuosity of the principal characters, director Elena Araoz creates plenty of visual interest, aided by Dottie Marshall Englis's costumes and Margery and Peter Spack's colorful sets. And the incidental music by a live rock band lends something of a cinematic quality to the production. Her stage pictures are compelling as well and pacing feels right, but on the whole I'm not sure the production serves Shakespeare as well as it might.
There's no doubt that Romeo and Juliet are young (the text tells us Juliet is not yet 14) and impetuous. They're fired up with what Ms. Araoz, in her program notes, calls "big love" and convinced that "winning in matters of love is a life or death situation." But as played by Reynaldo Piniella and Sigrid Wise, they seem more callow and flighty than tragic--not so much star-crossed and moonstruck. For me, at least, it made their death scenes far less affecting than they should have been. I saw Mr. Piniella do much better work at the Rep in 2015 in I and You, so I have to assume my argument is with the direction rather than the performance.
|Sigrid Wise and Jane Paradise|
Photo by J. David Levy
Ms. Araoz also seems a bit too fond of keeping her actors in nearly constant motion, which sometimes distracts from the text. That was an issue with Terrell Wheeler's otherwise fine delivery of Mercutio's famous "Queen Mab" speech, for example, as well with much of Cherie Corinne Rice's Lady Capulet--another solid performance that didn't need to be quite so busy. Sometimes it's best to just let us absorb the words.
Still, the cast turns in strong performances overall, and not just in the principal roles. Michael James Reed is a fearsome Lord Capulet, Jane Paradise is a broadly comic Nurse, and Gary Glasgow finds subtlety and shading in Friar Laurence that one doesn't always see. Patrick Blindauer does nice work as the Chorus, the Apothecary, and the comical Peter.
I would also be remiss if I didn't point out that, when I saw Romeo and Juliet on opening night, the audience seemed to enjoy the show and stood up to applaud at the end, the humidity and the three-hour running time not withstanding.
Performances of Romeo and Juliet continue Wednesdays through Mondays at 8 pm through June 24th at Shakespeare Glen, across from the Art Museum in Forest Park. Green Show festivities, including performances by local artists, start at 6:30, as do backstage tours. Admission is free if you bring your own blanket or lawn chair. If you want to sit on a chair in the reserved section, that will cost you either $10 or $20, depending on where you sit; details are available at the festival web site.