Thursday, June 8, 2017

The School for Lies, Shakespeare Theatre

As the lights prepare to go up for Michael Kahn's production of David Ives's The School for Lies, I could already guess exactly what would happen when the play began--and I was exactly right: Cody Nickell, costumed beautifully by designer Murell Horton, appeared on Alexander Dodge's fetching set, and launched into a prologue of rhyming couplets.  The evening proceeds from that moment, with couplets and forced rhymes galore, hijinks, and improbable escapades crafted by Ives based (loosely, at times) on Molière's Le Misanthrope.

Photo of the cast for The School for Lies by Scott Suchman.


That lack of surprise isn't necessarily a bad thing-- the Shakespeare Theatre Company has previously mounted three other "transladaptations" of classic French plays from Ives that have been very popular with STC's audiences.  The School for Lies did not begin as one of these collaborations, but rather was produced independently, with a previous premiere by New York's Classic Stage Company, and Kahn has chosen now to bring it to Washington. Why not continue a collaboration with an artist you enjoy using a formula that has been successful in the past?  Ives even revised the piece fresh for this production, based on current proceedings here in the beltway.  I've gone on the record that the final entry into Ives' French trilogy, The Metromaniacs, was the best of these efforts, and so I've certainly been curious to see if this play would be its equal.

Unfortunately, this work doesn't hang together as neatly as Metromaniacs.  Ives's own program notes cite that he chose to work with Le Misanthrope because he didn't like the play, and so freely transformed it into something he preferred.  The piece is supposedly centered on a character (here, Gregory Wooddell's Frank) that detests hypocrisy, and yet this aspect all but disappears after the first twenty minutes of the play as he falls for the charms of Victoria Frings' Celimene.  Instead, we have a play with a lead character that has a bone to pick with society, but this aspect doesn't seem nearly as important to the production as the entirely retooled love plot into which Frank flings himself.  Ives's inserted allusions to "fake news" and other references to hypocrisy in our own leadership feel pasted into the play, a nudge-nudge-wink-wink to DC audiences that have probably heard these same jokes before elsewhere.

The play isn't without its bright spots and laughs, and the return of Veanne Cox is a pleasure, as always. I simply felt, however, that I'd seen it all before, and seen it better, done by this same artistic team.  There will be plenty who will welcome the chance to see Ives and Kahn do their thing together again, but for the rest of us, I'll set my sights on the 2017-2018 season and look ahead to what's to come.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Macbeth, Shakespeare Theatre Company

At Sidney Harman Hall, John Coyne's expansive set reaches deep and wide across the open proscenium stage for Liesl Tommy's production of Macbeth, and audiences can immediately see that  the concrete walls along the upstage wall are riven with an epic crack.  The crack doesn't gesture towards incipient structural collapse, however, because it has been filled in with gold.  Unlike the way in which the Japanese art form of kintsugi uses gold to repair cracked pottery (which uses that repair as a means of celebrating the imperfections wrought by time or mischance and creating something beautiful at the same time), Coyne's gilded break in the wall feels more dangerous, the gold filling the crack imperfectly, as though hoping that the flash and sparkle might keep you from realizing that the foundations are no longer stable or secure.  Here, the gold is beautiful, but can't fully convince you that the building won't collapse at any moment.

Photo of the cast of Macbeth by Scott Suchman.


Tommy's production is fascinated by that element of disarray and chaos that lurks underneath power and all the glamor that comes with it, but of equal important in her vision is the instigators and fomenters of that chaos.  Tommy puts that onus squarely on the witches and uses them to underscore her entire production's bent.  The wilds of Scotland are traded here for an unspecified region in North Africa, and the witches are American operatives come to manipulate events to their own ends with little regard for the human lives that are torn asunder by their actions.  When one of the witches bloodies his own face and steps into the scene as the sergeant who first sings the praises of Macbeth to Duncan, we can see that Tommy has no desire to let her Macbeth wallow in ambiguity of vision.  It's a pointed, unmistakable move, and throughout the evening, we see the ways in which American money and power are circulating throughout this particular war-torn Scotland and adding to the chaos and instability.

At times, that chaos can wash over the stage and leave the audience wondering exactly what they've signed on for.  When Banquo pulls out a soprano saxophone and kicks off a sequence of music, dance, and all hands on deck pageantry, more than a few eyebrows started shooting up around me.  But when Nikkole Salter swept onstage making her first entrance as the new queen of Scotland, spontaneous cheers broke out to echo the ones onstage.  From skepticism to YAS KWEEN in under thirty seconds- it's a hell of a moment of theatre.  As Macbeth, Jesse J. Perez is an actor familiar to STC audiences. but more often in comedic roles, from his turns in Mary Zimmerman-helmed productions like Argonautika and Candide to commedia-inspired The Servant of Two Masters.  As Macbeth, Perez gives an intensely human performance, balancing the power and effectiveness that brought him this far on his own with fear and unsettled discontent propelling him towards his downfall.  This is a power couple that is struggling to stay on the same page as their lives begin to reshape, and Salter and Perez make fine work of their rise and fall from power.

Photo of Jesse J. Perez as Macbeth and Nikkole Salter as Lade Macbeth in Macbeth by Scott Suchman.

Other standouts include Marcus Naylor as Macduff, who grabs the stage and every heart in the house when he learns how Macbeth revenged himself upon his family, and Myra Lucretia Taylor who plays both the Porter and the Doctor. Taylor's turn as the drunken porter reminds us just how badly we need a comic release by this point in the proceedings, and she instantly has the audience in the palm of her hand.  Indeed, Tommy's casting allows several women to take on parts traditionally played by men, from Petronia Paley's Duncan to Sophia Ramos' Ross, who each play these parts as women, and demonstrate that just because you work in early modern theatre, there's no good reason not to find more opportunities for gender parity.  Having women in these roles, playing the characters as women, builds a richer world for the audience to consider, and I was delighted to see this element of the production play out over the evening.

Tommy's production of Macbeth isn't subtle, but it doesn't want to be.  Instead, Tommy wants us to look frankly at our own unsavory tendencies as human beings and as a nation, and she wants us to do so here in DC at this moment in time.  Sometimes it can seem heavy-handed and the production feels no qualms about leaning into the violence of war, vengeance, and murder, but Shakespeare's play gives us all of these right in the text.  Macbeth was never meant to be a comedy or a feel-good fun time.  As soon as Macbeth gets the push from the witches, death and destruction are inevitable, and with all the same factors still in play even after the Macbeths are gone, what change can be hoped for?  Once the wall is cracked so deeply, no amount of gilding can really make you forget that your foundation is forever changed and can never be quite stable again. Liesl Tommy is a director to watch, and her Macbeth is a match made in--well, if not heaven, certainly made right here in DC.


Two Minutes' Traffic: Or, Round House Theatre

Entering its final week of performances at Round House in Bethesda is Or, a new play by Liz Duffy Adams directed by Aaron Posner.  In many ways, I am the ideal audience member for this play. I have a history of liking Posner's work best when he's working with modern playwrights, and I adore any chance of seeing Holly Twyford take the lead, especially in a small ensemble.  While the Restoration wasn't precisely my period in school, I certainly know enough that Aphra Behn, the figure at the apex of the play's triangle of characters, was a familiar name to hang a play on.  The elements that make up Adams' play are ones that I greatly enjoy, from exploiting every opportunity for farce that such a small cast playing a large variety of roles can grant an audience, to a frank and relaxed treatment of gender and sex capable of reminding the audience of just the sort of freewheeling attitude that so much of Restoration theatre embraced.  While Or is an enjoyable evening, it is not a particularly remarkable one--the thrust of the plot is all in the lead up, and "Will Aphra get her shot?" is a question anyone with Google access can answer before the play begins.  On the other hand, "What would Aphra do next?" is actually the question I would be more interesting in exploring, considering where Adams leaves her characters.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Select, Shakespeare Theatre Company


When you enter the Lansburgh Theatre to see Elevator Repair Service’s production of The Select (The Sun Also Rises), their adaption of Hemingway’s novel, the lights are already up on the set designed by David Zinn—a bar decorated with empty bottles, portraits of bullfighters, and tables already littered with half empty glasses of alcohol.  As company member Kate Scelsa enters and takes a seat long before the house lights dim, she starts to work her way through the dregs of a few wine glasses.  Soon, we realize that we’re in for a new variation of an old standby: Chekhov’s Booze.  If a glass is set out, by the end of the night, someone is going to have downed it, and the actors of the ERS do so with the relish befitting Hemingway’s story.

The Company in Elevator Repair Service's production of The Select (The Sun Also Rises)
at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.


Elevator Repair Service, a company of 25 years standing, completes a trilogy of adaptations of literary works with The Select, which they first performed in 2010. The style the company first adopted for their adaptation Gatz (The Great Gatsby) uses the verbatim text of the novel’s narration and dialogue, but finds equal theatrical fodder in staging the expected plot points as in discovering spaces between these moments.  Here, their eye is on Hemingway’s novel of ex-pats, alcohol, and ill-fated interconnections between an all-too-small social circle.  As our narrator and central character, Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) serves as our introduction to ERS’s style, introducing us to the productions’ conceit of blending Hemingway’s narration and dialogue.  Iveson’s performance and John Collins’s direction compels the audience to buy into this strange theatrical undertaking, and we’d be foolish to say no.

Earlier this season, another theatre’s work reminded me that when adapting a novel for the stage, the best way forward tends to be by embracing theatricality as fully as possible.  Separate yourself from slavish devotion to the source material, and instead turn towards theatrical artifice as much as possible. This adaptation seems to challenge that assumption by using Hemingway’s actual text, but has no fear in diving headfirst into theatrical possibility.  Collins keeps the ensemble moving quickly across the stage, which can as easily transform from one bar to another as to a bullfighting arena.  Sudden choreographed dance breaks demonstrate that what we are watching is theatre, not life. Sound design by Matt Tierney and Ben Williams is run onstage by the ensemble themselves, and serves as a delightful reminder that everything we see is both carefully planned to the tiniest detail and always at risk to the vagaries of theatrical and electronic fortune. 

The ensemble does excellent work, drawing on a larger company of actors than appear on stage on a given night (the program reveals the large amount of double casting).  Iveson’s excellent Barnes is the rock of the production, with Pete Simpson (Mike Campbell), Stephanie Hayes (Brett Ashley), and even director Collins (Robert Cohn) filling out the center of Barnes’s swirling, doomed social circle.  Robert M. Johanson’s Bill Gorton provides the latter half of the production with a welcome jolt of buoyancy and good humor, while Susie Sokol is a riveting presence in the final third of the play as the young and charismatic Pedro Romero.

I’ve never been a fan of Hemingway, with a distinct lack of patience for what can seem like Lost Generation male-centering self-pitying extravagance (I know, I feel your indignation already, sorry not sorry). The difference for doubters such as myself is that here, we also gain the lens of Elevator Repair Service’s perspective on the work that they are performing for us- we never feel like we are encountering Hemingway unexamined.  Elements of Hemingway’s work that come under justified criticism (the anti-Semitism that shapes the entire character of Cohn and his treatment within the novel, for example) come to us presented by actors who can play the text in a way that can still criticize it.  Stephanie Hayes can play Brett as a woman seen entirely through Barnes’s male gaze in a manner that can also suggest that gaze is limited.  If Hemingway’s characters are obsessed with a rigid definition of masculinity, ERS can cast a woman as the character that stands as the pinnacle of that masculine ideal.   

As Chekhov’s booze is drained glass by glass over three hours, the company works very hard to draw the audience in.  At times (particularly late in the second half), that labor shows its edges, but it feels undeniable that the audience is witnessing a great feat of theatre.  Elevator Repair Service is a company that theatre lovers need to know, and it’s our good fortune that the Shakespeare Theatre Company has brought them to DC.  The Select (The Sun Also Rises) is a reminder of how we have to continually question how we make theatre from the ground up, and one I’d highly recommend theatregoers seek out.
  
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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

King Charles III, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Dramatization of real people is a tricky thing, even when done in the most speculative fashion.  Shakespeare most often got away with it by creating plays based on history books, not recent memory, much less directly based on the living.  The closest he got was late in his career, in the John Fletcher collaboration of Henry VIII. While that particular play is uneven, in production, its most powerful moments often come by seizing onto the characters’ iconography—utilizing just the right stance or the right costume as depicted in the most familiar portraiture.

In David Muse’s production of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which opened this week at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the iconography of one of the most famous families in the world today is drawn upon.  The play opens in a somber requiem, sung by the ensemble in the final moments of the (unseen) Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. The music builds until the ensemble fades back to reveal the Windsors and—despite a cast with an uneven actual resemblance to that family—the audience en masse shares a moment of instantaneous recognition (due in no small part to costume designer Jennifer Moeller’s work).  That iconography has worked its magic and we see before us Charles and Camilla, William, Kate and Harry.  A risky concept has turned the audience into believers for a night.  It’s a hell of a moment of theatre, and the evening has only just begun.

Jeanne Paulson as Camilla and Robert Joy as King Charles in the American Conservatory
Theatre production of "King Charles III, directed by David Muse. Photo by Kevin Berne. 


While it's may seem like a play that premiered in 2014 is a strange fit for a classical theatre, Bartlett’s play works better than I might have supposed. It contains echoes of number of Shakespeare’s plays, from Macbeth and Julius Caesar, to Henry IV and Richard II (indeed, I walked out wondering how exactly the full title of the play wasn’t King Charles III: a modern fantasia on Richard II, with so many parallels on kingship, identity, and hollow crowns throughout the play).  Bartlett also utilizes the conceit of a combination of prose and iambic pentameter, which gives audiences the pleasure of heightened language in our own contemporary vernacular, suggesting a form of theatrical translation for the audience experience of Shakespeare's day into our own.  Just to underscore that shift, when the common man comes onstage to converse with a prince, it's Rafael Jordan and a kebab cart rather than a farmer or old-fashioned tradesman.

The play imagines a near future of Prince Charles’ sudden ascendance to the throne, and the subsequent crisis of political and national identity that besets everyone in short order. Despite its premiere date tracing back three years ago, as most things seem to do nowadays, it carries an unusual resonance in today’s Washington.  Even with the action removed to a different country and an imagined future, questions of democratic principles, complicity, and responsible rule carry a special frisson of familiarity for DC audiences. The play centers on a constitutional crisis when the new King Charles III (Robert Joy) refuses to sign a new law from Parliament; Charles sees a compromise of the English free press, and the Prime Minister (Ian Merrill Peakes) sees a figurehead standing in the way of the will of the people and their elected representatives.  All sides act from their genuinely held principles, but Bartlett is most concerned with how Charles reacts as a new monarch, finally stepping out of the wings and into a role that isn’t quite what he imagined.

The cast, led by Joy, does excellent work.  Joy is a compelling tragic figure, even in Charles’ weakness.  His habitual need to soliloquize to the audience skillfully balances a desperation to be understood with a dangerously stubborn self-centeredness.  Jean Paulson is a sympathetic Camilla, the only one to support Charles unequivocally, while Allison Jean White’s Kate has both sympathy and an underlying steel that shores up Christopher McLinden’s William.  Bartlett gives us a pair of young lovers in Michelle Beck’s Jessica and Harry Smith’s Prince Harry; while it’s a pleasure to see Beck back at STC after an excellent Ophelia in Michael Kahn’s most-recent Hamlet, she seems to struggle with an accent while Smith has a propensity towards bellowing.  The set design by Daniel Ostling allows one Gothic chamber to represent all corners of palace and Parliament that are required by the script, and lighting designer Lap Chi Chu does exceptionally beautiful work shading its corners and the statues of three kings that loom over the proceedings.

King Charles III at STC manages the difficult trick of being both entertaining and thought-provoking, sometimes in unexpected ways.  Bartlett’s script takes a few turns that are questionable, and I found just as much pleasure in debating those after the final curtain as I did in enjoying the intended narrative that was performed onstage.  We all have fallen prey to the old curse and live in interesting times, whether we like it or not, and King Charles III ably challenges us to see its characters’ struggles, and thereby ourselves, out in the light.     

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Hard Problem, Studio Theatre

In Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem, currently running at the Studio Theatre and directed by Matt Torney, the playwright challenges his audiences to consider topics most of us would claim to know nothing about, but are tangled up with fundamental questions that most of us, again, have wrestled with at some moment in our lives.  How do we understand consciousness, the nebulous quantity of what makes us not only human, but uniquely so? How do we reckon with what science can discover and quantify, and what we may never understand at all?  What makes one person see a coincidence, and another find a desperately longed-for miracle?

You know. Typical Stoppard stuff.

Unsurprisingly, The Hard Problem is not an easy play, either for actors or for audiences.  Stoppard has no final answer to the problems he poses, and at times, the play has a hard time making its characters' discursive reckonings with consciousness, human psychology, and financial prospecting matter to the audience.  Torney's ensemble of actors do admirable work at laying out the intricate scientific arguments that provide the framework of the play. As Hilary, the surprisingly theistic scientist at the center of The Hard Problem, Tessa Klein does the production's heavy lifting. It's a testament to her work and the work of other ensemble members like Kyle Cameron, Shravan Amin, and Nancy Sun that we can follow their intellectual labor clearly--the ensemble does, however, struggle with convincing us that these debates are as viscerally vital to them as they need to be to genuinely forge a connection with the audience.

Stoppard has been branded in the past as a playwright who creates intellectually impressive plays that lack heart; Torney's production does create the scaffolding necessary to hang all of these complex ideas upon, but the heart of the play isn't as carefully laid bare for the audience.  Instead, the production invites more rational analysis than it does passionate reaction.  Rather than emotionally investing in the characters, I found myself deconstructing Stoppard's dramaturgy as the play progressed, as interested in the workings of the story structure as the characters were in the mind or the financial market.

This being said, several days have passed between my seeing Torney's production and writing about it here, and I'm still wrestling with the ideas of this play. I've returned to older treatments of similar themes by Stoppard (Jumpers, most notably, and Rock 'n' Roll) and been interested in the way these themes have continued to percolate in his mind over the years with different results.  Even though The Hard Problem is not Stoppard's best, it can nevertheless enrich my own accumulated theatrical experience, and I'm grateful to have seen it here in DC.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Two Minutes' Traffic: The Secret Garden, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Sometimes, theatre can give you a moment that you didn't realize that you needed.  One such moment this holiday season came in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Secret Garden.  While I was  familiar with the story as a child, I somehow missed the musical version by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon that was beloved by most of my peer group.  I may not have known the show, but I'd been a fan of Daisy Eagan, the musical's original Mary Lennox, for years- I've knew her writing, bright with insight, humor, and honesty.  When I saw an early performance of The Secret Garden at STC, directed by David Armstrong, I was happy to see an actor that I knew I enjoyed in a show I was curious about.

There's a lot to enjoy in Armstrong's production, which is beautifully staged and sung. This November has been a difficult one for many of us, and when I walked into the Harman, I needed art that would fill me back up and send me out renewed.  As I watched the musical unfold, I was deeply touched by Eagan as Martha, a maid who finds herself reaching out to and caring for the orphaned Mary; I found her performance suffused with the warmth that I was craving.  

 But then Daisy Eagan sang "Hold On," and something inside of me broke down and then built itself back up again by the final chorus.  It was watching Martha react with love, when love has been hard to come by for the young Mary Lennox.  It was knowing how often Eagan had stood there as a child, hearing the song that she now could sing as an adult, with all of the knowledge and the hard-fought grace that comes with years of experience.  It was all of these things and more, the perfect combination of a hard moment out there in the real world, an actress singing from her heart, and a song that told me that I could carry on, that even when there's "man who's raging", I can defy defeat.
I didn't know the show, much less to expect the song, but it was exactly what I needed to hear that night.

The last month has brought me back again and again to the words of Leonard Bernstein: This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. I wasn't explicitly looking for it in The Secret Garden, but it's what I found on a cold November night, and I hope that more of us can do the same.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sense and Sensibility, Folger Theatre

The Folger Theatre's Sense and Sensibility, in an adaptation by Kate Hamill and directed by Eric Tucker, proves a long-standing hypothesis of mine: when adapting great works of prose, the best adaptations are the most boldly theatrical.  The less they bind themselves to mimicking the exact tone of the source material, and the more they allow themselves free range to find the nuances that most excite them as theatre, the stronger the production will be.

Luckily, Hamill and Tucker as the main collaborators involved here (both members of Bedlam, a theatre company familiar to DC audiences who saw their productions of Hamlet and Saint Joan at the Olney Theatre Center a few seasons back) prove this hypothesis with aplomb, excitement, depths of genuine feeling, and a wealth of unrepentant theatricality and stylization.

Most important in this adaptation is the freewheeling spirit of exploration of a familiar story, shaking loose the centuries that have accrued around the story of the Dashwoods, and putting the emotional focus squarely on the relationship between the two eldest sisters, Elinor (Maggie McDowell) and Marianne (Erin Weaver).  The two actresses play the sisters' tumultuous, but deeply loving relationship with enormous sensitivity; it's very clear from both performances why these sisters can have difficulty connecting with each other, but likewise how much each others' lasting happiness is their first priority.  More so than in any other adaptation I've seen of Jane Austen's story, I felt the love between these two characters and the uncomfortable desperation of their social situation.  The entire ensemble is clearly relishing their various roles, and work and move absolutely seamlessly in the rolling set designed by John McDermott.

The Folger has extended this run through mid-November, and I highly, HIGHLY recommend you take advantage of it and see this production if you haven't already.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Two Minutes' Traffic: Angels in America Parts 1 and 2, Round House Theatre

Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches; Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika (co-produced by Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center, performed at Round House)

Angels in America is the kind of play that looms large in the consciousness of twentieth century American theatre, but the epic scope which demands incredible feats from its cast and inevitably lengthy run times can make it a tricky sell for theatre companies.  Everyone wants it to be done, absolutely- but it's always nice when someone else can produce it, so that you can just go see theirs.  In this case, Round House Theatre and the Olney Theatre Center have combined forces to make the mountain a little more scaleable; each theatre's artistic director helms one half of Tony Kushner's two-part masterpiece, and the two theatres are co-producers of each play.

The two plays have their own distinct challenges, but directors Jason Loewith and Ryan Rilette navigate the shared world of the play seamlessly, as Loewith sets the plates spinning with careful art in Millennium Approaches and Rilette reveals their ecstatic, heartwrenching payoffs in Perestroika.  James Kronzer's stark, yet expansive set serves both plays well, while Clint Allen's projection designs allow the set to tremble and throb as angelic visitors come nigh.

Tom Story's Prior is truly the heart of both plays; his performance is raw and ravaged, but desperately maintaining his dignity as Prior's world unravels bit by bit.  Sarah Marshall is a protean wonder, playing more characters than anyone else, and in particular, imbuing Hannah Pitt with an obstinate vitality.  Dawn Ursula and Jon Hudson Odom are other strong standouts in a spectacular cast that includes Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hébert, Jonathan Bock, and Thomas Keegan.

Angels in America is the type of play that demands to be seen, and you would do well to heed its timely call at Round House.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare Theatre Company

What do you need to create a good Romeo and Juliet? To do any Shakespeare can be a challenge, because of the anticipated struggle with the language, or with twisting and unfamiliar plots. Sometimes, however, a challenge exists because of the opposite reasons: the language and plot are SO familiar, they've become embedded into our cultural consciousness. Such is the case with Romeo and Juliet, where the struggle can come from audiences who think they already know all they need to know about the play. The blasé, self-styled authority is a peculiar challenge all its own, whether they come convinced that Romeo and Juliet is a play about overwrought teenagers who kill themselves for no good reason, or they know every word so intimately they'll be dissatisfied if an actor chooses a "wrong" inflection for a word or phrase. Both can be deadly, so how best to avoid them?

The short version is, Be smart. Choose the story you want to tell about the star-crossed lovers of Verona, and put in the work to MAKE it work. Alan Paul, Associate Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, has here the job of engaging this most basic, most difficult challenge, and doing so in his first foray directing Shakespeare for his company. The great work begins long before the curtain rises, and its a pleasure to say that Paul did indeed put in the time and labor with strong results. It's all too easy to say that Romeo and Juliet are foolish teens who make colossally poor choices, and claim that their fabled great love story is nothing of the kind. The problem with that approach is that it doesn't make for good theatre. Instead, Paul gives us a production that believes in the love story at its core, while not ignoring the danger of the violence and decay imbued in the world that surrounds it.

Ayana Workman is undoubtedly the soul of this Romeo and Juliet. Her youth and vitality bring Juliet vividly to life, from the moment she enters, the effect is instantaneous: you cannot cynically brush aside this young woman's story because she's "only" a teenager or because you know the story too well. That's what makes you twitch in your seat--Workman's Juliet is SO young, so alive, so pulsing with intelligence, bravery, and determination, and before the night is through, Juliet will have died.  The story feels immediate, terrible, and terribly real.  Andrew Veenstra brings the production a Romeo who is as captivated and charmed by her as the audience is, trying hard to distance himself from his first entrance from a fight he wants no part in.
Ayana Workman as Juliet and Andrew Veenstra as Romeo in Shakespeare Theatre Company's
production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Alan Paul. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I was also terribly pleased with the return of Jeffrey Carlson to STC, last seen in the title role in Hamlet in 2007 and 2008, a performance which I may or may not have seen six times (spoiler, gentle reader: I did).  What I loved best about Carlson's alternatively brooding and manic Hamlet was the prince's ferociously fast mind that moved at a pace ten times quicker than anyone else's in Denmark (with the lone exception of a gravedigger). Carlson's Mercutio shares some of that same energy, with a mind moving at a speed his stillness might belie at first glance, and his Queen Mab speech is the most appealing I've seen.  Audiences always want more Mercutio than we get, but I felt it acutely in Paul's production.

The Capulets, Montagues, and their assorted hangers-on inhabit a dark red, two-level space designed by Dane Laffrey, conjuring something like the decaying, rotting glamor of a hotel or club that used to be the pinnacle of decadence.  The glamour of the surroundings is fading and oppressive, like something you might register dimly through the fog as your week-long bender reels to an end.  Here, the deep red haze is one that comes from marinating in violent and bloody feuds that no one is able to escape, whatever side they take or try to deny.  I confess, I'm not entirely sure why the second level was there, as it wasn't used to particular effect, except that someone probably thought a balcony was de rigueur for any Romeo and Juliet.  Kaye Voyce's costumes were a miss for me; as soon as my companion likened Romeo's look to Justin Bieber, I was done for.  Mercutio's party suit, however, can stay.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Romeo & Juliet, 
directed by Alan Paul. Photo by Scott Suchman.

What I return to when I consider this Romeo and Juliet is not the imperfections, but the way in which, more so than in any other Romeo and Juliet I've seen in recent years, I found myself rooting for these crazy kids: couldn't they, just this once, make it? Could we at least pull a West Side Story here? No?  Ah, well.  I might have some quibbles, but Alan Paul's production reminded me of so many reasons why Romeo and Juliet is a genuinely good play.  With something so familiar, we can sometimes forget that simple truth, but here, it's hard to deny.  I imagine that this production may not be popular with everyone, but for my taste, I can see the thought and care that went into creating its heart. I can appreciate the actors' text work that shapes the verse, and I can hope that this production will grab some students at the school matinee and make them feel the tug on their hearts that Shakespeare can also be for them.