By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
photo by Tim Fuller.
From left, Richard Baird, Paul David Story and Kyle Sorrell in Arizona Theatre Company's Romeo and Juliet.
It's not a good sign when there is audience laughter during any death scene in a Shakespeare play – particularly when it's the tragic love story of "Romeo and Juliet." And especially when it's an Arizona Theatre Company production. The state's official theater is supposed to stand for the best Arizona has to offer.
That didn't seem to be the case this time. On opening night a young cast gave way too much attention to exaggerated body language in order to communicate the meaning of Shakespeare's complex sentence structures.
At times, this extra carrying-on got rather silly, which was often rewarded with scattered laughter – even during the scene of Mercutio's fatal stabbing in the street.
After 420 years, "Romeo and Juliet" has proven itself indestructible, but Kirsten Brandt the director is definitely pushing on the envelop of possibility.
To make this familiar tale of star-crossed lovers feel more timely, Brandt has set the tale in Verona in the early 1960s. Maybe the actors' extra animation was intended to make the play seem more lively.
She has added many other extra goodies to Shakespeare's script, including: a variety of elaborate multimedia effects; a lot of incidents with actors screaming at each other (presumably to create the impression of intense emotions); using music like a background soundtrack, even having several solo musicians step out from the wings now and then to play brief passages that announce a changing of the atmosphere.
Throughout these unexpected twists, all the actors do look exceptionally good. Their costumes designed by Kish Finnegan could have come straight from Federico Fellini's own movie sets.
That orange motor scooter prominently featured in the show's advertising does get rolled out several times, though it never actually becomes the young couple's getaway vehicle.
As for the kids themselves – Romeo (Paul David Story) and Juliet (Chelsea Kurtz) – they seem coltish and adolescent enough. Romeo gets puffed up with bravado when times are tight. Juliet's enthusiasm for marriage is all bubbly. But her determination to face death alongside Romeo rather than live life without him is not convincing.
A part of the problem is we aren't drawn into the compelling charm of their exuberant desire for each other. In today's culture over-heated with promiscuity it is difficult to equate the excitement of marriage with the anticipation of one's first sexual experience. Romeo and Juliet just never seem that taken with their marriage.
Brandt's need to cast some women in positions of power brings us two gender changes in roles that were originally written for men.
Kathryn Tkel creates a very androgynous Benvolio as the play's informal narrator who sets up the description of that unfortunate clash between two prominent houses of Verona.
Leslie Law cast as the benevolent Prince of Verona gives the ruler a stern female demeanor, looking for all the world like the proto-typical junior high school principal calling her students to order.
Then when Law doubles later on as the kindly Nurse, we get to see the actor's gentler, far more winning side.
"Romeo and Juliet" continues through March 21 with performances at various times Tuesdays through Sundays in the downtown Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $37-$67. For details and reservations, 622-2823, or visit arizonatheatre.org
The run time is 2 hours, 45 minutes, with one intermission.