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October 3, 2000

Romeo and Juliet, Y'all -- A Really Good Ole Play

A Review by Pat Pinson

Of all Shakespeare's plays, surely Romeo and Juliet is the favorite. It is not his greatest, but one of his most poetic. The lovers are not tragic, but are victims of circumstance caught in a series of unlucky events. And we love them! We put this play in high school textbooks, we make films of it (at least 18 versions in 6 languages), we make musicals (West Side Story is a hallmark of American musical theater), we write operas, create ballets, and even compose symphonies on it. It is still a crowd pleaser 400 years after it was written.

But one of the most interesting and workable pairings of Elizabethan language and unElizabethan place was this past weekend when the Joe Jefferson Players opened their season with a Romeo and Juliet cast in Alabama during Mardi Gras using Shakespeare's English with a Southern drawl. And like a chameleon, the play adapted very well. Tom Gray, the Director, writes that this production is the result of two years preparation, a 35-year passion for Shakespeare, and a lifetime of living in the South. In fact, it seemed to fit the southern festival time like a hand in a glove -- the masked revelers looked at home in their tuxes and sequined dresses, and the deaths of Romeo and Juliet occur on Ash Wednesday. How appropriate! Shakespeare probably would have liked that.

The lead characters, Romeo (Jared Culpepper) and Juliet (Ashley Dismukes) are not necessarily the most prominent ones in the first half of the play; they come into their own in the second. They are young, immature and romantic teenagers who are hurled against the wall of feuding families and are forced into decisions they are unprepared to make. Culpepper's youth plays convincingly most of the time against the more seasoned actors, and he comes alive when goaded into anger. Dismukes is still new to the stage at 16, (Juliet is almost 14 and is Shakespeare's youngest protagonist) and she lacks some of the depth the part needs, but her youth and command of her lines make her portrayal intense and full of innocent candor.

Mercutio, a friend of Romeo's, comes close to being the central character of the first half. He is not closely aligned with either family but is a strong character around whom the other young men revolve. He is imaginative, mischievous, and bawdy and is played to the hilt by Jim Faust. Faust commands the stage with broad gestures and gives the feeling that he is thinking up the lines as he is speaking them. Faust's monologue about Queen Mab and dreams is a tour de force filled with raucous gestures and sardonic humor.

Juliet's Nurse is the other bawdy, noisy and engaging companion so prominent in the first part. Teresa Ashcraft's portrayal is so southern and so meddling that she often steals the scene. And her more subtle movements fit right along with her strong presence and voice. Maybe the flaw in Shakespeare's play itself is writing these two out well before the end.

Tybalt's brooding anger erupts with little provocation and is carried through well by the Brad Byrne's serious focus, but Benvolio is not so convincingly played by Gerald James. Benvolio is the conciliator and voice of reason and needs to balance Mercutio's robustness. But his desultory pacing often undermines the strength of his words.

The award for bit part must go to Ty Broadnax who plays Peter, the illiterate but very savvy servant. He commands the stage when he is on it, and adds a strong dose of savoir-faire for such an apparently untutored background. But the incongruency is overlooked because his antics are so comedic.

Lighting was especially effective in the crypt scene at the end, and the music, which was added through much of the play, was a strong enhancing element. Also, the Prologue and Chorus parts were delivered by a Chorina, played by Kim Zelnicker, who spoke and also sang. Unfortunately, she could not always be heard, but it gave additional poignancy to the unfolding tragedy to have the Muse respond.

Shakespeare's ironic parallel actions in the play were made even more ironic in two notable instances -- Romeo and Juliet have their fateful first meeting to the blinking lights and whooping Mardi Gras ball with a procession of various other couples, and Juliet lies "dead" while some very funny wedding preparations are taking place.

The set was ingenious in combining a series of scenes -- balcony, garden, palace, and church -- into a coherent unit and a minimum of change added a bedroom (with a rather jolting crazy quilt), rectory interior, and crypt. The fishing camp on the side (over in Mantua, Mississippi) as the apothecary's hangout was a jarring bit of reality, but in context, it worked.

All in all, this major undertaking of theater was a success. It is good to see Shakespeare produced outside of Alabama's premiere Theater in Montgomery, and it is edifying to find that the bard can be so at home in southern culture. After all, we are not so different; only our trappings occasionally flutter to another breeze.


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