Monday, March 30, 2015

reviews - ROMEO AND JULIET - Arizona Theatre Company

Chelsea Kurtz and Paul David Story
Photo: Tim Fuller / Arizona Theatre Company
For more information on this production, that runs through April 12th, click here

"one can’t help wondering what Shakespeare might have thought had he witnessed the new, gender changing production of his most famous of romantic tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, as presented by Arizona Theatre Company.  It’s one thing to have Montague’s lines delivered by Lady Montague (Heather Lee Harper) during the final burial vault scene but it’s another to have the Prince laying down the law and giving orders that must be obeyed when delivered with such forceful, no-nonsense power by a woman (an outstanding Leslie Law). ...it’s the constant updates, changes and reinventions that keep the work alive for new generations who may otherwise have little or no interest.  Here at ATC, director Kirsten Brandt has taken a bold leap forward with the story of the star-crossed lovers by presenting the play as a vibrant, lustful, ever-moving production with seamless scene changes supported by inventive, multi-media screen projections and imaginative lighting.   When Romeo (a suitably youthful Paul David Story) and Juliet (a luminous Chelsea Kurtz) meet for the first time at the Capulet’s house party, as designed with the hanging lights that appear from above like night stars glittering in the dark, the movement, the music, plus the overall look of the setting and the character’s appearance, it’s as though Fellini had directed the Dance at the Gym.   There are several directorial flourishes that work well.  That Vespa is a nice visual touch to the time and place as it motors across stage, plus those inventive projections add a rich, atmospheric texture to the settings, particularly the flash of red during a murder or the splash of blood that flings from Romeo’s knife to the wall behind him, but there’s also the occasional overreach.  Watching a blown up image of the lovers in bed removes the intimacy of seeing them for real, plus the faded image of the deathly skull projected on the wall when drugs are administered doesn’t set the scene as well as intended, it just makes it more obvious.  There’s also the issue of the musicians.  From time to time, actors stand or sit stage left playing instruments which proves both distracting and unnecessary.  There’s already an effective, scene setting musical landscape courtesy of Michael Roth.  Once you realize they’re there, perhaps sitting at a keyboard or holding a cello, your attention is diverted away from what should really be your center of attention.  Particularly intrusive is the percussive pounding used during Juliet’s bedroom speech that all but drowns what she’s saying.  For a tragedy, Shakespeare incorporated much humor, fleshed out particularly well with playful energy by Leslie Law as Nurse and Richard Baird as Mercutio.  But in a production that works so well in some areas – the playfulness of the balcony scene, for instance, makes something familiar seem fresh and alive again – there’s a danger of veering too much into making other things appear funny.  Those seeing Romeo and Juliet for the first time would be forgiven for thinking they were watching a full blown comedy. " -David Appleford, Valley Screen and Stage (click here to read the complete review)

"Arizona Theatre Company gets most things right in their production of this classic tragedy. Changing the setting of the play to the 1960s (yet still set in Verona, Italy) and having two key parts now played by women, both add a vibrancy to what is probably the most famous story of young lovers. With an exceptional cast and impressive creative aspects ATC takes a fresh and daring approach to the tale. However, Shakespeare purists be warned as this is clearly not your grandparent's Romeo and Juliet.  Director Kirsten Brandt has done an impressive job in finding a talented cast to portray these iconic characters. Paul David Story and Chelsea Kurtz give refreshing takes on the young star crossed lovers. While both Story and Kurtz are a few years past their teens, they both have no problem instilling their characters with plenty of teenage moments of exuberance, emotion, and excitability. They also deliver some of the play's most famous lines with a fresh energy that makes them seem anything but stale.   Leslie Law humorously plays Juliet's loving nurse with a sharp tongue full of wit but also plays one of the two male roles being performed by women, the Prince, with a refined sense of authority and righteousness. Likewise, Richard Baird portrays Romeo's boisterous close friend Mercutio and also the wise, caring Friar Lawrence, achieving superb performances of both. Law and Baird are giving the two best performances in this production with their ability to navigate Shakespeare's language with a natural ease that makes the language come alive. They also instill their parts with plenty of assured comical moments, especially in the first act, making the tragedy that unfolds in act two even more heartbreaking. Brandt's staging is quite good. She uses David Lee Cuthbert's three large wall panels of colorful projections to sweep us seamlessly from one location to the next, yet also ensures that her cast has the ability to instill Shakespeare's prose with both a lightness and an emotional weight when appropriate. There are only a few small missteps in the direction. First, having a few of her actors also play instruments on the sides of the stage for very brief moments is a bit strange. They play along to the existing prerecorded score by Michael Roth yet don't really add much to it, and sometimes become a bit of distraction to the events unfolding on the stage. My other quibble is in the overuse of humor in act one. There are points when it almost becomes an out and out comedy that, for anyone who has never seen this play before, might be confused with how tragic act two becomes. While the cast is expert in the comical moments, and never crosses the line into broad comedy or caricature, it is jarring at times and almost makes it seem like this has become one of Shakespeare's comedies and not one of his tragedies. Not everything works in this ATC production and some who prefer their Shakespeare in a traditional format might be put off by the abundance of humor in the first act (in one scene Friar Lawrence is sneaking a joint). Yet, this is a perfect example of how to update a Shakespeare classic to appeal to a new audience while at the same time providing a fresh take on a play many have seen numerous times before. Even with just a few small quibbles, with an engaging cast, clear direction and a visually impressive production, ATC's 1960s Verona-set Romeo and Juliet is quite impressive." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

"Arizona Theatre Company publicity states that the company’s first production of William Shakespeare’s classic love story, Romeo and Juliet, “takes on a bold new theatricality under the ambitious and creative hand of award-winning director Kirsten Brandt and designer David Lee Cuthbert.”  It’s rare that such glowing marketing proves so true.  Re-envisioned by Brandt, Shakespeare’s classic dialogue and the familiar plot that includes jealousy, revenge, prejudice, and evil betrayal is intact as is the Verona, Italy locale but the time has been shifted from the 15th century to the 1960s. The ill-fated affair still ends as we know it will but the ride is a rambunctious delight that finds more humor in the piece than usual while never undermining the play’s serious undertones or the horrific ending.  Costuming is outrageously bright and garish in the flagrantly overdone ‘60s style of excess while designer Cuthbert uses projections on an interesting alignment of screens that take us from place to place with choreographed precision that when coupled with Brandt’s brightly paced staging keeps the long play moving briskly as each plot detail is revealed with brilliant imagery on an ever changing stage. The production’s major strength beyond its interesting concept is a fine cast that makes each dramatic moment movingly sincere but finds much humor in the hypocrisy of the longtime feud between the Montagues and the Capulets that dooms Romeo and Juliet’s love since they come from the opposing families.  Boyish Paul David Story delivers a physically agile Romeo who is truly infatuated with Chelsea Kurtz’s delicate and beauteous Juliet who also possesses great courage as she goes with her adoration for Romeo.  The pair’s scenes together are touchingly intimate but explode with genuine romance.  Richard Baird has many fine moments in three roles as he helps unite the lovers.  Leslie Law is a wise but funny Nurse to Juliet and Kyle Sorrell plays the double role of angry Tybalt and phony Paris with stalwart conviction.  Romeo and Juliet gives the classic love story a welcome dimension of contemporary relevance." -Chris Curcio, KBAQ (click here to read the complete review)

"Arizona Theatre Company's first Romeo and Juliet, set in early 1960s Italy, throws a lot of ideas against the wall. A few of them even stick.  This is almost literally true, thanks to the scenic design of David Lee Cuthbert, which mixes a few old-school "hard" set pieces with a series of moving panels for video projections. When we meet Juliet in her bedroom, for example, the walls are plastered with virtual movie posters, including James Dean on a motorcycle, which serve to underline both the setting and the fact that our tragic heroine is still just a wide-eyed teen.  Visiting director Kirsten Brandt also goes for a bit of gender-switching with a matronly Prince and a Benvolio reimagined as a "Teddy Boy." Brandt also taps her cast to play a succession of musical instruments onstage, sometimes to add much-needed dramatic tension; others, it seems, just to make it hard to hear the dialogue.  There are a number of nice visual touches, even if the onstage-Vespa card gets played one time too many. Unfortunately, the many creative ideas add up to less than the sum of their parts, resulting in a production that looks like La Dolce Vita but sounds like the same old Romeo and Juliet, complete with caterwauling histrionics sputtered by actors with an underdeveloped affinity for Shakespearean verse. There are two exceptions. Leslie Law makes a winsomely bubbly Nurse, and Richard Baird, familiar to Valley theatergoers from his stint at Southwest Shakespeare Company, serves up a refreshingly masculine Mercutio (a role often played fey) as well a Friar Lawrence who's one part holy man and one part Jeff Bridges as the Dude.  A brisker pace would help some, too. Shakespeare's famous prologue promises the tale of star-crossed lovers will take up "the two hours' traffic of our stage," but this production stretches to three, which makes all those explanations and confessions in the sepulcher all the more tedious. It's just too much weight for one Vespa to carry along." -Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic (click here to read the complete review)

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