According to the publicity material surrounding the debut production of Pasadena’s Boston Court Theater, adapter-helmer Michael Michetti’s aim is to illuminate a little-known nugget of U.S. history, utilizing the Bard’s “tale of woe” to reflect “the broader struggle facing New Orleans during the tumultuous period of the Creole wars in the early 1800s.” Supported by impressively evocative production values, Michetti has taken the star-crossed romance of youthfully exuberant Romeo (Jason Van Over) and his oh-so-willing Juliet (Tessa Thompson) to the Vieux Carre, casting the Capulets as Creoles and free people of color, while the warring Montagues are designated staunch white American Protestants. Unfortunately, the production is so intent on establishing a sense of time and place that short shrift is given to what should be the foundation of the production: the evolution of the tragedy that eventually obliterates the lives of Shakespeare’s innocent duo.
The problems start at the outset with the energetic arrival of Voodoo Queen/Narrator (Bernadette L. Speakes), an impressive dancer whose overly thick Creole accent obliterates one of Shakespeare’s most noteworthy opening narrations. The accent proves to be troublesome and inconsistent throughout the production. Since the Creole-spouting Capulets dominate the dialogue through much of the ensuing action, attention becomes more and more centered on how something is being said rather than its meaning. This is especially true in the cumbersome interactions of Monsieur Capulet (David Roberson), Madame Capulet (Inger Tudor), Juliet’s always-seething cousin Tybalt (Will Owens) and her wealthy suitor Paris (Donavin Dain Scott).
The Montagues and their friends have a much easier time with the dialogue, reflected in the more seamless give-and-take between Romeo, his cousin Benvolio (Ryan Spahn) and his ragingly irreverent Cajun best friend Mercutio (J. Todd Adams). Adams handles the French-tinged Cajun accent well. Surprisingly, within a directorial design that is supposed to amplify racial tensions between the families, it is Adams’ Mercutio who supplies the only overt racial slur, ridiculing Tybalt with a “minstrel man” caricature preceding their deadly duel.
Despite Thompson’s wavering accent, she and Van Over handle the emotional evolution of Romeo and Juliet quite well. Effectively communicating the callowness of youth, they appear equally confused and enthralled by their immediate attraction to one another. The balcony scene evokes the comical confusion of two hormone-driven seekers of love who literally do not know whether they are coming or going. By play’s end, when they are forced to face death rather than be parted, they are so secure in their devotion; they accept their mutual demise as naturally as they had expressed their love on their wedding night.
Providing comic relief to the proceedings is the infectious outing of Carlease Burke as Juliet’s Nurse, a supposed refugee of San Dominguez who has no problems with her accent. Phil Proctor also scores as the worldly-wise Friar Laurence, who despite his good intentions sets in motion the inevitable doom that overcomes fair “Juliet and her Romeo.”
The production values underscoring this inaugural legiter are remarkable. The setting (Tom Buderwitz), lights (Dan Weingarten), sound (Julie Ferrin & Martin Carrillo) costumes (Alex Jaeger) and original music (Paul Hepker) impressively emphasize the parallels between Shakespeare’s classic Verona setting and the Vieux Carre of the early 19th century, right down to the masked balls, wrought-iron balconies and above-ground tombs. Boston Court has the potential to be one of the premier local 99-seat legit houses. “Romeo and Juliet: Antebellum New Orleans, 1836” happens to suffer from too much concept and not enough substance.