Utah Shakespeare’s touring version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ lacks passion

The best I can say about The Utah Shakespeare Festival Touring Ensemble’s 75-minute version of "Romeo and Juliet" – geared toward high-school audiences and open to the general public this weekend – is that it isn’t terrible.

This time out the group doesn’t talk down to its young audience. Director John Maclay focuses on communicating William Shakespeare’s text, and judging from the reactions of the teenage audience I saw it with, he’s succeeded.

The laughs (apart from the whistles and applause that greeted every kissing scene) were earned through the lines. It was fun to see some of the Bard’s greatest quips being appreciated by many who may have been experiencing the play for the first time. The feuding young men aren’t portrayed as simpletons, and Joe Foust’s expert fight choreography infuses the production with a needed sense of danger. The audience members got quiet whenever the swords swung into action. And when the weapons dealt a fatal blow, they seemed taken by surprise.

Maclay gives us in modern dress this tale of two doomed lovers who are destroyed by their families’ hatred. The extensive editing is effective, particularly in the blending of two scenes into one, which are played simultaneously. Maclay reminds us that editing can be an art onto itself.

The production makes for an adequate intro to a centuries-old monumental work. But adequate is far from inspired.

The actors come across as eager journeymen who haven’t yet learned how to inhabit someone else’s skin. Chris Klupatek as Romeo barely seems to notice the woman who overwhelms his life. His line readings are artificially chirpy. Melisa Pereyra could make for a lovely Juliet, but her sameness makes her unaffecting. The central love story is missing because the two leads don’t react to one another.

Almost without exception, there’s a detachment between actor and character. Thomas J. Novak as the short-tempered father Capulet doesn’t seem all that upset. You don’t understand why Juliet would be driven to a desperate act just because of this man’s slightly cross words (he’s also curiously unmoved by his daughter’s death). Josh Innerst’s Friar Lawrence isn’t particularly paternal or world-wise. Sara Zientek isn’t very princely as Prince Escalus; and as Juliet’s nurse and confident, she comes across more as an equal, a school chum, than a maternal figure who has helped raised the girl.

Eight actors perform all the roles, and this time out, the scaling-down hurts the script – with this cast anyway. Benvolio, Romeo’s pal, is played by a woman, and the gender-bending may be confusing to those kids who don’t know the play. I think it’s important that Romeo’s "pack buddies" (his fellow "gang members") be male, especially when a director throws in bits like a young female Benvolio smacking Romeo’s butt in a gesture of affection.

When we get to the finale – with the warring factions apparently united by their grief, and the sad music blaring – it’s easy to see what’s missing from this show: genuine passion.

And if you don’t have passion in "Romeo and Juliet" you really don’t have anything.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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