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Friday, July 1, 2011

Back to basics works in CSF’s “Romeo and Juliet”

Jamie Ann Romero and Ben Bonenfant in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "Romeo and Juliet." [Photo by Glen Asakawa for CU Communications]
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's troupe needs a hit. Like action heroes with their backs against the wall, they pull off a miracle – a straightforward, involving production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

CSF’s production of “R & J” doesn’t mess around. It coheres, it is focused and fun to watch. It proves that you can tell a thousand-told tale again and still touch its immediacy.

After some years of economic misfortune (CSF broke even last season, and will begin retiring its debt after this go-round), the Festival finds itself with a longer season, fewer productions, a reduced staff, and the elimination of concurrent runs on any one stage.

Given these conditions, it is vital that each and every show succeed. Under the scrupulous editing and firm direction of Lynne Collins, “R & J” does just that, moving briskly and clearly through its saga of woe. It’s so easy to miss the mark with Shakespeare, and CSF has delivered its share of wacky directorial concepts and woeful miscasting in the past. This time, it gets it right. (OK, I miss the end of Act Five, when the warring families reconcile and Friar Laurence does his own version of “CSI: Verona”.)

Many old hands and local notables in the acting profession are here to midwife the presentation. Best of all, Jamie Ann Romero is Juliet. She stole the show as Ophelia here two seasons ago, and excelled in “Our Town” and “King Lear” in 2010. Here she inhabits a difficult part – the emotional gyrations the two young lovers go through are acrobatic – with grace and depth of feeling.

No less gifted is Benjamin Bonenfant, who delivers a matter-of-fact Romeo so grounded in the reality of what is happening to him that he is absolutely believable. The CSF stalwart Geoffrey Kent is on hand as mercurial Mercutio, burning with his usual high standard of extremely watchable intensity. (He’s one of the top fight directors around, which gives us a splendid assortment of on-stage battling.)

Nurse and Friar are really the second leads of the show, serving as comic foil and fairy godfather to the doomed couple, respectively. Leslie O’Carroll is the picture of jollity as the Nurse, and a solid Erik Sandvold effectively underplays the humble monk.

Other familiar and welcome faces include Karen Slack as Lady Capulet, Mark Rubald as he husband, Stephen Weitz as Escalus and Sam Sandoe as the apothecary.

Andrea Bechert’s standing set is versatile and appealing, a tawny cityscape that neatly blends in with the faux-Italianate architecture of CU in which it nests. Clare Henkel’s costumes are period-friendly, and Shannon McKinney’s lighting is functional and unobtrusive.

On a technical note, long-time CSF sound designer Kevin Dunayer is not present this year, but his long-time assistant Rudy Garcia, and Timothy Orr, take over with no loss of quality.

Now, whether you like it or not, body mics are in place for each and every actor onstage this year, for the first time in CSF history. The challenges of ambient noise from nearby Broadway have made it difficult for some to hear the lines – and in truth, the Rippon Theatre was not designed with acoustics in mind.

The solution needs tweaking; crunches, drop-outs and feedback and distortion in the upper registers plagued the premiere. These are quite normal when breaking in a new sound system, however, and will undoubtedly be smoothed as the summer progresses.

This also gives the actors, some of whom have bellowed their lines for years on the outdoor stage, a unique challenge. Stage technique demands “big” gestures and expressions, film and other amplified work allows the performer to scale back his or her work. Everybody now has to stay big visually, and yet can pull back and explore subtlety vocally. It should be a fascinating exploration in contrast.

It’s great to be able to recommend a production wholeheartedly. CSF understands “Romeo and Juliet,” and will share that with anyone who attends this very excellent show.
 
“Romeo and Juliet” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 13 in the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre on the campus of the University of Colorado. For tickets and information, please visit coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.