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Posts Tagged ‘william shakespeare’

The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phil Gill
St. Louis Shakespeare
November 8, 2019

Addison Brown, Julie George-Carlson, Riley Capp
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

For St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production, director Phil Gill has made a bold move. The Merchant of Venice is known as one of the Bard’s more problematic plays, especially when viewed by modern audiences. Other companies have found various ways of approaching this material to mitigate or somehow try to “fix” some of the problems, but this production seems to go the other way, presenting a fairly straightforward staging–aside from one notable twist–that highlights the difficulties, forcing the audience to confront them and think about what they mean, both for the Shakespearean setting and for today.

The one twist here is that the character of Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is usually played by a man, is played here by a woman (Julie George-Carlson), and as a woman, with all the pronouns and other references previously referring to the character as male changed to reflect the casting. Otherwise, though, nothing else has significantly changed. It’s a difficult story, ostensibly a comedy, in which characters who are supposed to be likable do some especially unsavory things, especially in reference to Shylock and the attitude toward Jewish people in general. When this was written in Shakespeare’s day, the message regarding Shylock may have been considered moderate for its day, but now it’s most certainly not, and the audience is forced to face the reality of how society mistreats and marginalizes those who don’t fit in. So, while the Shylock character does make a demand that seems unreasonable, the staging and portrayal here emphasizes what her reasoning may have been for that. The rest of the story, in which Antonio (Addison Brown) borrows the money from Shylock to help his friend Bassanio (Riley Capp) woo the wealthy Portia (Liv Somner), and some other plot points involving Bassanio’s associates Gratiano (Jeremy Goldmeier), Portia’s lady in waiting Nerissa (Erin Struckhof), as well as Bassanio’s other friend Lorenzo (Joseph Garner) and Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Erin McRaven) are more in the vein of romantic comedy, but these get tied into the Antonio and Shylock dispute eventually, as Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as men to participate in the trial, and the Duke of Venice (Jeff Lovell) presides. There’s also some funny business involving a provision by Portia’s father for how she is to find a husband, involving choosing between three caskets and featuring some hilariously bombastic would-be suitors, the princes of Morocco (Victor Mendez) and Arragon (Duncan Phillips). It’s a compelling story, if more than a little uncomfortable to watch at times, as we see otherwise “noble” characters behaving not-so-nobly in several notable moments, and particularly at the trial, and then after some fairly brutal moments we are expected to switch back to more light romance scenes. It’s jarring, and in this staging remarkably effective.

The casting is, for the most part, excellent. Leading the way is George-Carlson in an especially memorable turn as Shylock. Her Shylock is stubborn, to be sure, but there is also a real sense of pain and anger here, which is credible considering how everyone else treats her. She is the clear standout here, although there are strong performances all around. Brown is something of a laid-back Antonio, but Capp is a lively Bassanio, displaying strong chemistry with Somner’s equally strong Portia. Goldmeier is also memorable as a particularly boisterous Gratiano, who is well-matched by Struckhof’s amiable Nerissa. Mendez and Phillips are also notable in strong comic performances as the would-be suitors, and also with Phillips in an additional role as Shylock’s dissatisfied servant Launcelot. It’s a good ensemble all around, keeping up the pacing and tone well.

The physical staging is limited somewhat by the venue. The stage at Tower Grove Baptist Church isn’t ideal, with a difficult seating set-up and not much in the way of a backstage. Still, the simple set by Kyra Bishop Sanford is in keeping with the traditional setting, even though the frequent scene changes can get monotonous. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler are excellent, however, with rich period detail and well-suited for the characters. The lighting by Tony Anselmo, sound by Kaitlynn Ferris, and props by Trish Baylard also work well for the production, making for a coherent, engaging presentation.

The Merchant of Venice is, for various reasons, not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. It has its moments, but it’s especially problematic in its overall theme. St. Louis Shakespeare is to be commended for facing the problems straight on with this relatively simple, bold staging. It’s a picture of a society that’s not particularly pretty, which forces viewers to reflect not only on the reality of this situation, but on the aspects of our own society that need to be confronted. Even with a few rough edges staging-wise, it’s a truly memorable production.

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Love’s Labors Lost
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tom Ridgely
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 31, 2019

Bradley James Tejeda, Kea Trevett, Sky Smith, Laura Sohn
Photo by Philip Hamer
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

It may be over 400 years old, but as staged this year by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in their usual outdoor setting in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen, Love’s Labors Lost may as well have been written for this venue. With an inventive set, crisp staging, and ideal casting, this show provides more than a simple outdoor entertainment. It’s energetic, it’s musical, it’s a conversation starter, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

As usual, the first thing that’s obvious in this year’s SFSTL production is its set, this time designed by Jason Simms and managing to be remarkably versatile and striking while blending into the surrounding setting at the same time. The set represents the estate of the King of Navarre (Sky Smith), who along with his friends, students Longueville (Sam Jones), DuMaine (Riz Moe), and Biron (Bradley James Tejeda) makes a bold vow to devote himself to study for three years, shunning worldly pleasures and, especially, the company of women. This plan is soon challenged by the arrival of a delegation from the King of France, led by his daughter the Princess (Kea Trevett) and her attending ladies Maria (Vivienne Claire Luthin), Catherine (Kiah McKirnan), and Rosaline (Laura Sohn), who predictably attract the attentions of the men, who proceed to court the women in increasingly bombastic ways. Meanwhile, the Spanish soldier Don Armado (Philip Hernández) arrives, attended by his witty pageboy Moth (Naima Randolph) and immediately falls in love with local country girl Jaquenetta (Molly Meyer), who has also attracted the attentions of rustic local Costard (Patrick Blindauer). Basically, the story involves a series of romantic misadventures, as well as the concurring efforts of several locals including self-important academic Holofernes (Carine Montbertrand) and local priest Nathaniel (Katy Keating), along with Costard and others, to put on a play for the King and his visitors.

The play, one of Shakespeare’s earliest, isn’t incredibly plot-heavy and relies on a lot of witty banter and the relationships between the characters to make it interesting, and this production makes the most of that banter and the larger-than-life characters, as well as an atmospheric, melodic musical soundtrack provided onstage by the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra along with the cast members themselves, particularly Blindauer who demonstrates a strong singing voice along with excellent comic timing in his role as Costard. The casting across the board is especially ideal, with everyone doing an excellent job but with particular standouts including Hernández as the bombastic Armado, making an excellent team with the equally superb Randolph as the clever, witty Moth. Tejeda and Sohn are also first-rate in their superb chemistry and witty banter as Biron and Rosaline, along with strong performances from Smith and Trevett as an also well-matched King and Princess. There’s also excellent support from Jeffrey Cummings as the Princess’s adviser Boyet, and fun comic turns from Montbertrand and Keating as the pompous and bumbling Holofernes and Nathaniel. It’s an exceptionally strong cast all around, with a great deal of energy and presence, and director Tom Ridgely’s fast-paced staging serves the production, the characters, and the broad comic tone especially well.

In addition to the excellent set, the other technical aspects of the production are equally stunning. The setting, which mostly seems to be in the early 20th Century era, is further spelled out via the colorful and meticulously detailed costumes by Melissa Trn. There’s also dazzling lighting by John Wylie and excellent sound by Rusty Wandall. The world of the play is brought into Forest Park with whimsical wonder.

Love’s Labors Lost is a remarkable effort for SFSTL. It has romance, charm, wit, humor, and a whimsical tone. It’s one of the most successful shows I’ve seen from the Festival in terms of integrating the play into its space. It’s a delightful production.

 

Philip Hernández, Naima Randolph
Photo by Philip Hamer
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Love’s Labors Lost in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 23, 2019

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Othello
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Patrice Foster
St. Louis Shakespeare
April 6, 2019

Reginald Pierre, Bridgette Bassa
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare has moved to a new venue, and they’re bringing a fresh approach to a classic tragedy along with the change of location. This Othello is updated in setting and costumes, but also given an intense, personal approach that lends a sense of timeliness to the story. There are a few surprises here, and an especially strong cast to bring even more resonance to this oft-staged play.

Othello is the name of the play, as well as its lead character, played here by Reginald Pierre. He’s a Moorish general who has recently married Desdemona (Bridgette Bassa), the daughter of the influential Brabantio (Brad Kinzel). Othello has also upset his ensign Iago (Cynthia Pohlson) by promoting Cassio (Phil Leveling) as his lieutenant instead of Iago. The vengeful, self-absorbed Iago then sets out to ruin Othello’s life, enlisting the help of the disappointed Roderigo (Jesse  Muñoz), who had hoped to pursue Desdemona himself. That’s essentially the setup, and the plot grows from there, as Iago plays on Othello’s trust for him and doubts about Desdemona’s loyalty, as well as using and manipulating everyone around him in his single-minded quest to destroy Othello, and Cassio as well.

This production, brought into a contemporary setting, highlights personal relationships as well as the insidious influences of both racism and sexism. The show emphasizes injustices–the mistreatment and mistrust of Othello first, and of the women consistently–even by the supposedly “good” Cassio. Iago is there trying to use everything to his advantage, as well. He is a monster, but he gets away with his monstrosity for a long time because he’s “one of the guys”, and the women are, for the most part, treated as convenient accessories, and sometimes as nuisances. It’s an intense, dynamically staged production that highlights the relationships of the characters and makes the most of the company’s new performance space at Tower Grove Church.

The casting here is especially notable in the choice to cast Pohlson as Iago, playing the role as a man, and as a swaggering, entitled, fiercely scheming one at that. It’s a dynamic performance, and a stunning one. Pohlson commands the stage with every step and plot from beginning to end. Pierre is also excellent as the highly conflicted Othello. and Phil Leveling makes a strong Cassio, still complex in his own right. Bassa, as Desdemona and Hillary Gokenbach as Iago’s mistreated wife Emilia are also outstanding, and there are fine turns from Muñoz as the manipulated Rodrigo and Lisa Hinrichs as Cassio’s sometime-lover Bianca as well. The cast chemistry is especially strong. The “bedroom” scene at the end is positively chilling, with top-notch performances all around, and the tragic conclusion carries credible emotional weight.

In terms of staging, the set by Jared Korte is simple, consisting of boxes that are moved around as needed. Brendan Schmidt’s lighting is effective as well, highlighting the increasingly ominous tone of the story. There are also well-suited contemporary costumes that work especially well, particularly the striking military uniforms. There’s also good work from props designer Amanda Handle, sound designer Ted Drury, and fight choreographer Tod Gillenardo. The new venue has its drawbacks (pew seating in particular), but for the most part, it works well for this production.

This is an Othello for today–intense, confrontational, timely. The staging by director Patrice Foster is intelligent and poignant, with a sense of energy and immediacy from beginning to end. It’s worth checking out on its final weekend.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Othello at Tower Grove Baptist Church until April 13, 2019

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District Merchants
by Aaron Posner
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
New Jewish Theatre
January 24, 2019

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

For their latest production, New Jewish Theatre is staging another literary inspired comedy by Aaron Posner. Like last year’s Chekhov-based Life Sucks, District Merchants takes a new look at its inspiration–this time Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice–and re-imagines the characters and situations in a new setting. It’s a new look at an much-studied and problematic classic that honors its source material while simultaneously challenging and reinventing it.

The story is now set in Washington, DC and Massachusetts in the 1870s. The Civil War is over, slavery is outlawed, but racial tensions and injustices remain. The central figures, who address the audience to introduce themselves at the beginning of the show, are Jewish moneylender Shylock (Gary Wayne Barker), and Antoine (J. Samuel Davis), a black businessman who was born free, and who borrows money from Shylock to help his young friend, Benjamin Bassanio (Rob White) woo a wealthy young woman named Portia (Courtney Bailey Parker). That all sounds like The Merchant of Venice, essentially, but there are notable twists. There are some important things Benjamin hasn’t told Antoine about Portia, and about the manner in which he’s going about pursuing her. Shylock, for his part, is given a lot more backstory, and is a more sympathetic character, although he’s overprotective of his daughter Jessica (Alicen Moser), leading to her wanting to leave his house for good. She’s also attracted to Finn (Paul Edwards), a young Irish immigrant who has ulterior motives for pursuing Jessica, at least at first. Portia, in the meantime, wants to go to Harvard law school and become a lawyer, but she’s not allowed because she’s a woman. That doesn’t stop her, though. Meanwhile, Portia’s longtime maid and confidante Nessa (Rae Davis) is aware of more than she lets on, and challenges Portia on her own biases. There’s also Lancelot (Karl Hawkins), Shylock’s household servant who sympathizes to degrees with both Shylock and Jessica and finds himself in the middle of all the disputes. That’s the setup, really, but there’s a whole lot that goes on here that I won’t spoil. It follows the basic framework of The Merchant of Venice in a lot of ways, but also deviates from that plot in several important ways. Several key speeches from Shakespeare are included, as well, especially notable speeches for Shylock and Portia.

This is a fascinating twist on the source material, which has been subject for controversy and criticism over the years, especially in its treatment of Shylock and Jewish people in general. Here, the twist is that nobody is in the dominant social group in 1870s society. The main characters are Jewish or black, and there’s also the Irish Finn, and Portia who is wealthy and white, but as a woman isn’t allowed to pursue the career she desires, and is expected to make an advantageous marriage. The tensions represented here are personal as well as societal, and larger issues of systemic injustice are also emphasized, with some fourth-wall breaking and direct challenges to the 2019 audience. The tone is still, for the most part, comic, but there’s some poignant drama here, as well, particularly in the expanded backstory of Shylock, which gives his reasons for sheltering his daughter and demanding his “pound of flesh” from Antoine. The dynamics of all the relationships are turned around, but ultimately it’s a comedy and there is still hope.

The staging by director Jacqueline Thompson is fast-paced and dynamic, and the cast assembled here is truly excellent. Davis and Barker are the central figures, and both are terrific. Barker’s Shylock is guarded, insecure, but also proud at the same time, and Davis displays considerable presence as the determined Antoine. Both men energize the stage when they are on it, and their scenes together are especially memorable. There are also impressive performances from White and Parker, who display strong chemistry as Benjamin and Portia; and Moser and Edwards, with equally strong chemistry as Jessica and Finn. Davis, as the witty, occasionally snarky Nessa, and Hawkins as Lancelot also display good chemistry and excellent comic timing. It’s a cohesive ensemble all around, bringing a lot of humor, as well as depth to their portrayals.

Technically, this production is a wonder, with a stunning multilevel set by David Blake and meticulously detailed period costumes by Felia Davenport. Sean Savoie’s lighting also contributes effectively to the mood and tone of the production, as do Zoe Sullivan’s sound and projection, helping to transport the audience back to a different, fully realized time and place.

District Merchants is a funny play, but also poignant and challenging. It takes a well-known Shakespearean tale and turns it around, bringing new depth to the relationships and situations. It also boasts a first-rate cast of local performers. It’s another impressive, intriguing comedy by Aaron Posner, given a remarkable production at New Jewish Theatre.

Gary Wayne Barker
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting District Merchants at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 10, 2019.

 

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Macbeth: Come Like Shadows
by William Shakespeare, etc.
Directed by Sean Patrick Higgins and Kelly Hummert
Rebel and Misfits Productions
October 25, 2018

Sean Patrick HIggins, Kelly Hummert
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Rebel and Misfits Productions

So, you park your car at a sports bar in Soulard, get on a bus, and are transported to Scotland–or an alternate universe Scotland that’s the invention of the devisers in a truly creative immersive theatre production of Macbeth that’s happening right now in St. Louis. Macbeth: Come Like Shadows is an inventive, confrontational, well-thought-out and strongly cast production that puts you into the middle of the story.

Macbeth: Come Like Shadows is immersive, but it’s also a play. Essentially, it’s a straightforward production of Macbeth in an unusual setting, with a few additions to the script and an additional devised pre-show that adds further context to the production. The setting is more or less modern, in an alternate reality in which Scotland has been taken over by an extreme right-wing dictator and freedom of expression has been severely limited. Most of the context, though, comes from the pre-show, in which audience members wander through the performance space in a semi-restored former church building and overhear conversations among the various characters, including the dictatorial Duncan  (Jeff Cummings) and his son Malcolm (Paul Cereghino), who is not inclined toward leadership. There’s also Lady Macbeth (Kelly Hummert), who is disillusioned for many reasons, including Duncan’s policies, the absence of her soldier husband (Sean Patrick Higgins), and a recent personal disappointment that she shares with her close companions Bianca (Patrice Foster) and Lady Macduff (Hailey Medrano), who has a new baby and is also missing her husband (Spencer Sickmann), who is currently at war and seems to never be home. Milling about the sanctuary that also includes a skate park, audience members can witness these various conversations and get an idea of the secretive, overly authoritarian regime, before Macbeth and Banquo (Shane Signorino) arrive and are confronted by the Weird Sisters (Tielere Cheatem, Alison Linderer, Cynthia Pohlson) to signal the beginning of the more linear play. The pre-show adds a lot of context to the interpretation of the characters and situations here, and the result is a chilling portrayal of a highly realistic situation, dealing with issues such as the polarization of society, totalitarianism, ambition, and the corruption of power. The up-close-and-personal arrangement brings the audience into the action as participants in the action, cast as war refugees and, at times, split into groups as part of the story, so this is a play that may be worth seeing–and experiencing–more than once, because depending on where you stand and what numbers are stamped onto your hand and wrist at the entry point, the experience can vary dramatically.

The setting, the backstory, and some new twists on the characters make this a whole new take on Macbeth, with more focus on the central couple, and on Lady M in particular, as well as some different context and reasoning behind their ambitions, as well as a drastically different interpretation of several characters, especially Duncan, Malcolm, and even the witches, who here seem more like ethereal mystical figures. Lady M, as embodied in a bold performance by Hummert, is every bit her husband’s partner here, and his rise to power is also hers, which makes her ultimate unraveling even more devastating. The obvious affection and attraction between the Macbeths is readily apparent as well, as the chemistry between Hummert and Higgins is palpable. Higgins’ journey from ambition to power is also made more personal here, and especially jarring in a key scene in which he gives a speech that says one thing, while the actions of his army around him seems to say something chillingly different. There are strong performances all around, from Sickmann’s single-minded Macduff, to Medrano’s neglected Lady Macduff, to Foster’s devoted Bianca, to the otherworldly Weird Sisters of Cheatem, Linderer, and Pohlson, as well as Cummings’s coolly pragmatic Duncan and Cereghino’s conflicted Malcolm.  It’s a bold, visceral, confrontational production that works on many levels, from the presentational to the personal.

Technically, the production values are impressive. The performance space poses particular challenges from its sheer size to its age, but the world of the play has been well realized here by Rebel and MIsfits’ technical team. Joe Novak’s set mostly consists of a few furniture pieces–most notably a large four-poster bed that is the focal point for many moments involving the Macbeths. The other major focus point is the skate park ramps on the other side of the performance area, although a few other areas in the room are also put to excellent use. The sound is something of a challenge–there’s an ominous soundtrack by Adam Frick-Verdine that adds a lot to the mood of the production, but the space itself is cavernous and often makes hearing dialogue difficult. Still, the visual aspects of the production are nothing short of stunning–from Eileen Engel’s memorable costumes to Jon Ontiveros’ truly striking lighting, illuminating the space in distinctive and colorful ways that make the most of the space and amplify the emotion of the production.

The interactive nature of this show can seem daunting at first if you’re unfamiliar with this type of theatre. I for one was more than a little nervous approaching this show, being the introvert that I am. Still, even though it took some time to adjust to the format, after a while I was able to get more into the spirit of the production. This production isn’t quite as “in-your-face” as I was fearing, but it’s certainly personal and as interactive as you want it to be, and it’s helpful to check out the company’s website for details of what to expect. You also get an email with instructions upon reserving your ticket. You can talk to the actors if you want, or you can keep your distance and be more of a people-watcher. It’s a daring undertaking, and I would think it would be especially conducive to repeat viewings. This is Macbeth like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s thrilling.

Cast of Macbeth: Come Like Shadows
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Rebel and Misfits Productions

Rebel and Misfits Productions is presenting Macbeth: Come Like Shadows until November 10, 2018

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The Tempest
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Patrick Siler
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 13, 2018

Donna Northcott, Ian Carlson, Erika Flowers-Roberts
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

The Tempest from St. Louis Shakespeare is an audio-visual experience. It’s the well-known Shakespearean story, but with some interesting twists, especially in terms of sights, sounds, and staging. Here, director Patrick Siler makes a few casting modifications and brings the audience into this wild, weird, wondrous world, making the most of the space at the Ivory Theatre with a bold, mysterious, excellently cast production.

This production takes an approach that’s traditional and non-traditional in different ways. The costuming and setting are essentially Elizabethan style, with excellent detailed and colorful costumes by Michele Friedman Siler, and the island setting is well realized through Kyra Bishop-Sanford’s versatile unit set. The “non-traditional” is more in the casting, with many of the male characters being recast as women here, from lead character Prospera (Donna Northcott), the exiled Duchess of Milan, to her usurping, scheming sister Antonia (Teresa Doggett), to the Queen of Naples, Alonza (Laura S. Kyro), whose ship is wrecked in a storm stirred up by Prospera and scattered about the island. Alonza’s son Ferdinand (Ian Carlson) is thought to be lost, but instead he’s found by Prospera and her young daughter Miranda (Erika Flowers-Roberts), who has grown up on the island and hasn’t seen many humans besides her mother. She is fascinated with Ferdinand, and he with her, but Prospera wants to test him first before allowing them to marry. There’s also the mischievous sprite Ariel (Karl Hawkins), who helps Prospera in seeking to foil the plans of the scheming Antonia and Sebastian (Charles Winning), as well as of the vengeful, half-human outcast Caliban (Dustin S. Massie), who attaches himself to the bumbling shipwrecked Stephano (Jeff Lewis) and Trinculo (Anthony Winninger).

What is particularly memorable about this production is its sights and sounds–the dynamic lighting by Joseph Clapper and especially the sounds–mostly supplied by David N. Jackson and a variety of different instruments, from an electronic keyboard to an array of drums and percussion instruments. The cast members also employ drums and percussion on stage at certain moments, particularly the chilling “tempest” and shipwreck scene at the beginning and a celebration at the end. The staging is fast-paced, for the most part, with particular focus on Prospera, Miranda, and Ferdinand, as well as Ariel’s frequent influence and presence. Northcott makes a particularly determined, somewhat enigmatic Prospera, who is especially protective of her daughter. The chemistry between Carlson and Flowers-Roberts as the lovestruck Ferdinand and Miranda is sweet, as well, and Hawkins is a strong presence as the ethereal Ariel. There are also some strong comic moments from Winninger, Lewis, and Massie in their subplot, and memorable turns from a particularly regal Kyro as Alonza and Winning and Doggett as the self-serving Sebastian and Antonia.

This is an odd play, certainly. It’s one of Shakespeare’s strangest, and that’s saying something. There are some difficult questions regarding motives and social roles, but the focus in this production seems more on sensations and basic emotions. Here, on stage at the Ivory Theatre, St. Louis Shakespeare has brought a storm of sights, sounds, complicated relationships, and whimsical mysticism. This Tempest still has a lot to say, but even more so, a lot to see, hear, and experience. It’s an impressive technical feat.

Cast of The Tempest
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The Tempest at the Ivory Theatre until October 21, 2018

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Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Elena Araoz
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
June 1, 2018

Sigrid Wise, Reynaldo Piniella
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

One of the things I love about Shakespeare is how timeless and adaptable the plays are. No matter what the setting, whether traditionally staged or modern dress, the plays still speak to modern times in terms of universal themes such as love, jealousy, family, friendships, and more. Sometimes, though, the staging of a play can set these themes in a way that’s more immediately accessible to modern audiences who may not be as famliar with more traditional stagings.  St Louis Shakespeare’s current production of Romeo and Juliet is a prime example of that kind of modern immediacy. With a strong sense of theme, a quick pace, and particularly modern phrasing, this production brings the classic story to life in a way that’s especially likely to resonate with today’s audience.

The familiar story of star-crossed lovers is here, presented on a colorful, scaffolding-and-neon decorated set designed by Margery and Peter Spack. The brightly colored costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis feature elements of various times, from modern day, to the 1970s and 80s, to Elizabethan times. The men wear swords, but also occasionally sport modern-style backpacks or carry an 80s-era boombox. Romeo (Reynaldo Piniella) and his friends Mercutio (Terrell Wheeler) and Benvolio (Antonio Rodriguez) are dressed in more “today” clothes, while Romeo’s parents, Lord and Lady Montague (David Heron, Patrice Foster) are more 70s-styled, while Lord and Lady Capulet (Michael James Reed, Cherie Corrine Rice) are in more of a modern upper class style, and Juliet (Sigrid Wise) is in vaguely modern styles that can’t really be tied to a specific decade, and the Nurse (Jane Paradise) is outfitted in more generally traditional garb, as is Friar Lawrence (Gary Glasgow); and the Prince (Pete Winfrey, who also plays Paris) is decidedly more Elizabethan. It’s a hodgepodge of styles, but possibly because of the color scheme and the vaguely but not specifically modern set, it’s all more or less cohesive.  The tone-shift inherent in this play, from comedy in the first half to tragedy in the second, is maintained here, with the early scenes given a sort of ominous underscoring by the excellent Dust Ensemble, who provided a musical score for the production that lends much to the overall atmosphere, style, and drama of the production, along with Rusty Wandall’s sound design and John Wylie’s bold lighting design.

One notable difference from other productions of this play that I’ve scene is the way the language is delivered. Shakespeare’s dialogue has not been altered, but the way the characters speak it has been given a more directly modern cadence and approach, so that the youth of the title characters and their peers is highlighted all the more, as is the boldness and confrontational tone of much of the proceedings. The words and fast-paced direction blend well with the musical score to heighten the emotions of key moments. The cast is excellent, as well, with Piniella’s impulsive Romeo and Wise’s sheltered, curious Juliet well-matched, bringing a chemistry to their interactions that is easy to believe. There are also standout performances from Wheeler as a particularly brash Mercutio, Dakota Granados as the confrontational Tybalt, Paradise as the devoted, doting Nurse, Glasgow as the well-meaning Friar Lawrence, and Patrick Blindauer in three distinct roles. The Montagues and Capulets are well-paired, as well, and performances are strong and cohesive across the board.

As excellent as this production is, I have one quibble with the overall Festival set-up this year. The general layout of the space at Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen has been changed around significantly, with the Green Show stage, refreshment stands, and other areas moved from where they have been for the past several years. For the most part, this works, except for the woefully inadequate restroom facilities that have been reduced in number and moved much further away from where they used to be. I imagine this could cause difficulties with crowds during intermission. I hope the Festival fixes this situation in future years.

As for the play itself, the overall impression of this production is a fresh, bold approach to the material that brings out the youthfulness of the protagonists and the seriousness of their story. Although much of the styling here in from previous decades, tonally this is a Romeo and Juliet for today, directed in a way that makes the action and relationships immediate and relatable.  It’s another excellent presentation of Shakespeare’s work from SFSTL.

Reynaldo Piniella, Sigrid Wise
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Romeo and Juliet in Forest Park until June 24, 2018.

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