Running Time: 2 hrs, 55 min
It's not all there yet. Up-and-coming playwright William Shakespeare penned a brilliant first half to his story of young tempestuous love in factional, impatient Renaissance Verona. But the second half of his Romeo and Juliet bogs down in the politics of arranged marriages, plodding plotting, and the histrionics of a rather dysfunctional family Capulet. All the cool characters are dead or on the run pawns of parents and Fortune's fools. The trick in staging this bipolar play has ever been keeping the suspense in the second half that the first half never really needs. For the Austin Shakespeare Festival striving to meet this age-old challenge: It's almost there.
Directed by Guy Roberts, who also plays the swordsmith/wordsmith Mercutio, this production has that brilliant first half in spades. The boys are brash, the swordplay is solid, and Joy Farmer-Clary is a Juliet who looks like a Renaissance lady and brings poise and focus to the role. Sometimes delicate, sometimes bold, Farmer-Clary captivates. Enrique Bravo is Romeo, and while his brooding at times gets the better of him, his passion is never in doubt. The chemistry between the pair is intense, and their embraces are real. As Romeo's bud, Benvolio, Ben Wolfe has a role tailored to his strengths; comedian or large-hearted second, Wolfe is outstanding for both his sharpness and his swagger. The longer this actor works, the greater his depth. Juliet's nurse also weaves her presence throughout the story, and Karen Kuykendall is excellent at that character's sharp-tongued, take-no-prisoners attitude, as well as those intimate moments with her charge when the story turns sour and she sensitive and wise. Peter, the nurse's companion, may be a dodderer, but Don Howell gives the older gentleman real heart.
As wordy, worldly Mercutio, Roberts gets to hog the limelight in word and action (and costume: in black leather pants and a black and white doublet, he's the picture of hotheaded confidence). Shelby Davenport is a fine Tybalt, always spoiling for a fight despite his elders' best interests and better instincts. The friction between factions grows with each passing word, and those words are sharp as rapiers here; Roberts has the cast completely in tune with the language, allowing for many lovely details and character moments.
But while the dynamic between the eager-for-a-fight factions is clear, some things are left unclear. A sense of the relationship between Juliet and Tybalt is missing, so the slaughter of her young cousin by Romeo forcing Juliet to choose between kinsmen and her new husband is rendered rather unimportant to the continuing saga of the young lovers, where it should hang over their heads. The troubled Capulet clan, with its martini-drunk trophy wife (Sarah Johnson shares the role with Stefanie King-Christ) and abusive dad (a stiff Steve Zinkgraf subbing for Tom Green on April 24), is just hard to watch as it airs its problems with little finesse. The sharp wit and anguish of the Shakespearean text submerges into a rather podunk suburban melodrama.
At this point, it's as if Roberts has run out of ideas, but that's the trouble with a play that suddenly halts its forward momentum. What saves the latter half from disappearing into the gloom altogether is a strong turn by Ev Lunning Jr. as Friar Laurence, the meddling friend who tries to keep the young couple's secret and devise a way out of their dilemma, only to be the unwitting instrument of their demise. Lunning's work in the latter scenes revives a flagging production. Roberts' embrace of the platform stage also proves effective for the finale; no funeral biers here, the last images are all sculpted beautifully. An extra mention for Michael Campbell, the first designer to really light the Playhouse well. With three more weekends, one suspects that the rhythm of that laggard second half might just kick in, alleviating the lapses. It's almost there, and it looks like ASF will get there in the end.
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