Romeo and Juliet

That Mother of Invention Productions has chosen Romeo and Juliet as its premier offering is admirable, but this new Austin theatre company's reach exceeds its grasp

Arts Review

Romeo and Juliet

City Theatre, through Feb. 18

Running Time: 2hrs, 45 min

They're with us again, the most famous pair of lovers, star-crossed or no, that ever graced a stage or a page. Words of love as sweet as those that pass between this pair of young sweethearts have rarely been writ, but if it were just a simple love story, Romeo and Juliet wouldn't resonate as it has throughout the centuries. As with so many of Shakespeare's plays, the theme of vengeance and its consequences is as much a part of the story as is the theme of newborn love, and in this case, violence does nothing but beget more violence and the tragedy that follows.

That Mother of Invention Productions has chosen this towering dramatic achievement as its premier offering is admirable, but, as with so many new Austin theatre companies that choose a difficult and challenging piece to launch their artistic enterprises, this one has set itself a task that its members are not entirely up to accomplishing. Shakespeare lives and, unfortunately, dies with his verse. If his lines aren't, first and foremost, spoken well, then chances are a production isn't going to work. The actors who succeed here are the actors who seem to have some familiarity with the verse and how it should be delivered, such as Jessica Robertson as Juliet's mother, Lady Capulet, and Alexander Epstein as the vengeful, doomed Tybalt. Each speaks the verse well and, almost as important, brings a powerful presence onto the stage. The single most effective line in this production is delivered by Robertson's Lady Capulet:

"O me! This sight of death is as a bell,

That warns my old age to a sepulchre."

Doesn't sound like much, does it? It isn't. There are many more memorable lines in the play, famous pieces of verse that don't carry much weight in this production because the actors don't have the knowledge, skill, and experience to work the verse.

While director Kathryn West seems to have the actors she needs to get the job done – both Andrew Cannata as Romeo and Noellia Hernandez as Juliet are appropriate for their roles – she sabotages herself with her staging. For example, she chooses to leave Juliet's bed on the City Theatre stage for the entire length of the show. Granted, the bed is a versatile set-piece, being used at times as a bed, a balcony, and a slab in a tomb. The problem is that the bed is covered in white and has a large white sheet hanging behind it. Both reflect light constantly, drawing the eye and, thus, often upstaging the actors on the otherwise black stage. Upstaging seems to be an accidental motif in the show, as actors stand in front of one another on more than a few occasions, and Romeo, with West's help, manages to upstage himself for practically the entire length of the famous balcony scene.

Shakespeare's play is genius, and the riches available in the Austin theatre community are boundless and certainly on display here. But here's hoping that for its next production, Mother of Invention chooses something for which its reach doesn't exceed its grasp.

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Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, Mother of Invention Productions, Kathryn West, Jessica Robertson, Alexander Epstein

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