Anything Des McAnuff directed would be expected to have a certain air of razzle-dazzle about it, but it's unlikely anyone in the opening-night audience at the Stratford Festival -- where he took over this year as artistic director -- was expecting his "Romeo and Juliet" to pack quite such a Red Bull-and-vodka feeling into its attention-grabbing start.

Anything Des McAnuff directed would be expected to have a certain air of razzle-dazzle about it, but it’s unlikely anyone in the opening-night audience at the Stratford Festival — where he took over this year as artistic director — was expecting his “Romeo and Juliet” to pack quite such a Red Bull-and-vodka feeling into its attention-grabbing start.

We’re somewhere in modern Italy, and the gangs (each a mix of black and white) fight with feet, knives, revolvers and Uzis. After one splatter of gunfire nearly kills a baby whose mother is lounging at a cafe table, even the Lolita-esque waitresses put down their iPods long enough to pay attention.

McAnuff also has more subtle tricks up his sleeve in this infinitely watchable and highly entertaining production. On the down side, however, there are significant acting weaknesses in the leading roles that keep the show from achieving the slam-dunk opening triumph McAnuff and the fest must have hoped for.

After his zappy modern-dress beginning, McAnuff pulls off a master stroke when the Capulets’ ball is held in full High Renaissance dress (Paul Tazewell did the wildly flamboyant costumes). But once the ball is over, everyone remains in these costumes until the end, when the grieving families enter the tomb in the same modern dress from the opening.

In both periods, Heidi Ettinger’s set remains prodigiously inventive, largely consisting of a jagged series of terra cotta tiles on the floor and a large arching bridge that moves backwards and forwards, serving as everything from the lovers’ balcony to the ceiling of their crypt. Meanwhile, the central hydraulic lift buried in the Stratford stage moves everything from Juliet’s bed to Friar Laurence’s herb garden in and out in record time.

Robert Thomson has provided lighting that illuminates the tricky thrust stage while contributing atmosphere, and Michael Roth’s score is far more subtle than Stratford’s usual trumpet fanfares. In short, a new team is in town, headed by McAnuff, and the end result has all the visual invention one expects from his work.

The acting, alas, is another matter. Festival veterans Peter Donaldson, Lucy Peacock and Ewan Buliung turn in masterful work as Friar Laurence, the Nurse and Mercutio, respectively. But the play is “Romeo and Juliet,” and the leads, Gareth Potter and Nikki M. James, are not nearly in the same league.

Potter has been with Stratford for several years, but while he understands how to speak the verse, he doesn’t display much variety and has little chemistry with leading lady James, whom McAnuff cast as Dorothy in his La Jolla production of “The Wiz.” There’s nothing in the thesp’s training or resume to suggest she should be playing a major Shakespearean lead on the mainstage of one of the primary classical theaters in North America.

James displays a certain sweetness as well as a knowledge behind her eyes, which she seems to know the part demands. But her thin speaking voice and McAnuff’s tendency to place her with her back to the audience make audibility a real problem.

Following the withdrawal of originally announced lead Anika Noni Rose, James also has been cast as Cleopatra in “Antony and Cleopatra,” opening in August. But unless she acquires more skill before then, the prospect of James playing opposite the awesome authority of Christopher Plummer is troubling.

Romeo and Juliet

Stratford Festival Theater, Stratford, Ontario; 1,826 seats; C$102 $103 top

Production

A Stratford Shakespeare Theater presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Des McAnuff.

Creative

Sets, Heidi Ettinger; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Robert Thomson; original music, Michael Roth; choreography, Kelly Devine. Opened, reviewed May 26, 2008. Runs through Nov. 8. Running time: 2 HOURS, 55 MINS.

Cast

Romeo - Gareth Potter Juliet - Nikki M. James Mercutio - Evan Buliung Friar Laurence - Peter Donaldson Benvolio - Gordon S. Miller Nurse - Lucy Peacock Capulet - John Vickery Lady Capulet - Sophia Walker Prince Escalus - Wayne Best Apothecary - David Collins Peter - Paul Dunn Montague - Roy Lewis Lady Montague - Irene Poole Abram - Andre Sills Tybalt - Timothy D. Stickney Paris - Steven Sutcliffe Old Capulet - Brian Tree

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