Thursday, July 5, 2018

"Romeo and Juliet": Day 3, Play 3, Theatre Eddys at 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Romeo and Juliet
William Shakespeare

The Cast of Romeo and Juliet
As a robed, hooded, and totally anonymous community surrounds them and solemnly listens, a young man and woman remove all mystery how their story will end.  Romeo and Juliet together recount how the long-term, oft-deadly rivalry between their two families will soon result in a tragedy for them and for all assembled.  Director Dámaso Rodriguez makes an inspired decision that all those who have perpetrated the tragedy must now witness the prologue for this 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival staging of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.   Among them, one senses a shared ownership and regret for the avoidable sorrow of the intermingled, now indistinguishable two clans.

But once this solemn forewarning is given, off come the robes to reveal the telltale signs of two, non-intersecting families, evident through the contrasting color schemes Leah Piehl has employed in designing the costumes for the Montagues and the Capulets.  Their attire has both the look and feel of some century long ago and the noticeable modern colors and patterns that remind us that the story we are about to see
is timeless and will have meaning even for us in our modern era.

As the action begins, Director Rodriguez takes the cues from Shakespeare’s script to emphasize the pun-and-double-entendre-packed humor that this play known as a tragedy offers in much of its first half, with actors displaying plenty of comic antics through voice, facial, and body gymnastics.  Chief clown in a boyish kind of way is Mercutio, Romeo’s friend, played with full animation, rowdiness, bawdiness, and just out-right silliness by Sara Bruner.  Her Mercutio along with Montague pals Romeo and Benvolio (Julian Remulla) do not let us forget that these are young men who are still near-boys as they jocularly rib and tease each other.  Even when they early on engage in chance street encounters with members of the Capulet gang, their catcalls and drawn swords have a brouhaha and bravado air to them that one would expect from teenage boys. 

That these still-teens are the willing inheritors of their families’ animosities is clear, but there is a recklessness that betrays the possible consequences as is seen when Mercutio mocks and touts Tybalt when the boys of the two families meet and begin to rumble.  It is only when Mercutio himself is the first to feel the fatal sword that the humorous thread of the play snaps in two.  Mercutio himself delivers the final joke of the evening when, with his dying breath, he tells Romeo, “ Look for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

A play that is viewed by many as Shakespeare’s greatest romantic story is given in this production plenty of space to underscore that while day-to-day life proceeds in a society divided among itself, dangerous events can be triggered at any moment due to the underlying seething of hate – hate whose source has been long forgotten.  The parallels to our own times -- especially in the politically polarized United States -- are so obvious that no more comment is necessary.

William Thomas Hodgson & Emily Ota
But at its heart, Romeo and Juliet is about an instant first-love between two people who care not for the life-defining differences and animosities others tell them they should have.  William Thomas Hodgson as Romeo is masterful in portraying a young man caught on the fence between boyhood and manhood.  There is a freshness, naivite, and wonderment he brings to adventuresome Romeo.  When he falls in love, his entire being exudes tingling thrills and anticipations.  He delivers the famous lines of the Bard as if they spontaneously somehow come from some unknown place within.  When he is angered and pulls his sword to kill Tybalt (cousin to his wife of just hours), his youthful manner forgets to think before acting or thinking of obvious consequences, with his immediate shocked, scared look after the fatal act being that of a youth caught by a parent after a major screw-up.  Even when his life is about to end with the climax’s fated poison, there is still a quality of youthful innocence gone horribly awry in Mr. Hodgson’s Romeo.

Key to any Romeo and Juliet is the sense of magnetic attraction between the two sudden lovers, even more sudden spouses.  In this production, the meeting of the two at the Capulet ball, lines are dutifully delivered and the first quick kiss occurs, but the sparks seen largely to be missing.

William Thomas Hodgson & Emily Ota
The first meeting of the two partly gets lost in a dance of partitions moving around them that are wood on one side and frosted mirrors on the other.  The ongoing use of mirrors that do not really reflect (part of Efren Delgadillo, Jr.’s scenic design) does suggest that these families live in a kind of house of mirrors where they no longer see what is really going on around them.  The hate and its effects is there to be seen but is never noticed.  And while this metaphoric effect is interesting, in the case of Romeo and Juliet’s moment of falling in love, the result is that the quick attraction between the two is not given enough center stage for a long enough time for full effect and credulity.

(Another directorial decision that diminishes the storyline’s effectiveness is for characters periodically to use sign language as they deliver their lines.  The effect is curiously interesting at first but only becomes puzzling as to its real intent and finally become somewhat distracting.)

But the real issue for this Romeo and Juliet is in Juliet herself.  While Emily Ota with skill and feeling delivers the heroine’s lines admirably, she in no way comes across as a girl any where near the age of fourteen (or any where even in her teens).  Her voice is never that uncertain, girlish voice that one expects from a teen that is excited about her first love and real boyfriend.  When she is impudent to her parents, she is not a screaming, pouting, stubborn teen as much as she is a defiant young woman in her mid-to-late twenties who is already her own person. 

While her Romeo is able to convince us that he is much younger than the actor portraying him, Ms. Ota becomes a mismatch of sorts because she acts and even appears much older and more mature than he when the two are together.  For me, this unevenness of maturity and portrayed age prevented the usual emotional build-up to occur that I normally experience when I see Romeo and Juliet  -- one that inevitably leads to tears for an ending I always know is coming.  Bottom-line, my concern is one that emanates from a casting decision or to a lack of needed directorial guidance and not one related to an actor’s obvious, talented abilities.

And yet, the power of Shakespeare’s masterpiece does overall work well in this OSF production with many directorial choices that bring home the message of the destructive nature of allowing two parts of the same community to divide to the point that each hates the other’s mere sight.  The production is also blessed with some character actors who bring much energy and heart to the evening.  Robin Goodrin Nordli as Juliet’s Nurse is often on the verge of being cartoonish with all her animated gestures, her eclectic gallery of voices, and her way to pull spotlight from her societal betters as she speaks with almost no breath; but she never becomes ridiculous and always knows when to allow her caring for Juliet and her desire for her happiness genuinely to reign forth. 

Likewise, Michael J. Hume as Friar Laurence is outstanding as he convincingly maneuvers a role where he is a background, rebelling crusader as well as a spiritual advisor.  While he can play the meek monk when necessary, he is quite ready more than once to defy the norms of the society he serves in order to aid the love life of his favored Romeo and at the same time hopefully bring about an alliance of the two families that will end their longtime, undeclared but very real war.  Mr. Hume’s Friar shows much wit, compassion, gumption, cleverness, and finally regret as he is a primary mover and shaper of Shakespeare’s tale.

The Cast of Romeo and Juliet
The lighting of Tom Ontiveros reflects beautifully to shift the moods and the times of day/night as the story progresses.  The music composed by Rodolfo Ortega (who also designed the sound) has one foot in the late-fifteenth/early-sixteenth century while its score also intones measures of modernity, still reminding us in subtle ways that this is not a story whose time has long past.

And while the 2018 OSF production of Romeo and Juliet may not be as emotionally affecting as past productions both here and on other stages have been, this interpretation is still overall engaging, well-paced, and especially timely to our times.  Maybe I did not cry, but I did think about and have follow-up conversations of the mirroring effect the messages have for us in 2018 United States.

Rating: 4 E

Romeo and Juliet continues through October 12, 2018 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Jenny Graham

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