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Regional Reviews

Romeo and Juliet
The Vortex Theatre at Albuquerque Civic Plaza


Gerome Olona and Sage Hughes
I can't find any definitive numbers, but I'm sure that Romeo and Juliet is one of the five most-performed plays in history, maybe even number one. The basic story is known to just about everybody who finished high school. So, while watching this production, since I didn't have to concentrate on the plot, I paid attention to the language.

It struck me that this must be the most unrealistic of all famous plays. I don't mean the plot. Despite its misunderstandings and coincidences, the story never feels preposterous. I mean the words. In Shakespeare's other plays, even though the language is so different from our own vernacular, you get the feeling that maybe people actually spoke that way, lofty though it sounds to our ears.

However, Romeo and Juliet makes no attempt to mimic natural speech. This is a poetic fantasia. When Romeo and Juliet first talk to each other, their first fourteen lines compose a sonnet. When Juliet is monologizing, she says: "Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, towards Phoebus' lodging! Such a wagoner as Phaeton would whip you to the west and bring in cloudy night immediately." This from a thirteen-year-old?

Just before he drinks poison, Romeo says: "Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on the dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!" Nobody in extremis talks like this. Not in Shakespeare's time. Not ever. There are a hundred other examples. Maybe Shakespeare felt that this elevated language was the only way to express the heightened emotions of burgeoning love and desperate loss. Or maybe he was just showing off.

In any event, the language is what makes the play hard to pull off. How many actors can say these lines convincingly? In this production, thankfully, there is Martin Andrews as Mercutio. Granted, it's a showy role, but Wow! When the Queen Mab speech is the high point of the show, though, it's not a good sign.

The second half of the production is weakened by the absence of Mercutio and by both overacting and inexperienced acting. The adults should know better, the youngsters can be forgiven. The roles of Romeo and Juliet are almost impossible to cast. We know from the script that Juliet is not yet fourteen, and we assume that Romeo is only a little older. Casting people who look too old doesn't work. Here, we have almost-age-appropriate actors playing the roles, and they really try, but can't quite get there. Sage Hughes as Juliet speaks almost all her lines the same way, and doesn't know what to do with her hands. Gerome Olona is fine in the friskier parts of the Romeo role, but doesn't have the experience to convey the dramatic sections effectively. The requisite chemistry between them doesn't cause any reaction. (I feel really bad about criticizing young actors, and I hope this doesn't discourage them in any way.)

The director, Billy Trabaudo, sets the play in contemporary Albuquerque. We know it's Albuquerque because of a (non-Shakespearean) news report that tells us the police used vigilante tactics. If you live in New Mexico, you get the reference to recent news items about our police department. At the start of this production, everyone in the cast walks out looking at their cell phones, and then never uses them again. The minimalist background is an alleyway, with graffiti-covered garbage cans. Friar Lawrence sounds like he just flew in from New Yawk. (Are we doing West Side Story, or Shakespeare?) The Chorus, the individual who introduces the play with a sonnet, is a homeless man with shopping cart and vodka bottle. All of this is an unnecessary attempt to make the play relevant to our times. I'm not sure that Shakespeare intended Romeo and Juliet to ever seem contemporary. His Verona exists in the eternal Neverland of the poet's imagination.

There are two good reasons to see this show. One is Martin Andrews. The other is to support the first-of-its-kind collaboration between the City of Albuquerque Cultural Services Division and a local theater company, the Vortex. Romeo and Juliet is playing in repertory with A Midsummer Night's Dream, with the same actors in both plays, on an outdoor stage in the Civic Plaza downtown. The distractions are few, because there is almost no traffic there in the evenings, and Albuquerque is fortunate to be too dry for most insects. Despite the heat of the day, the evenings are always pleasant.

The outdoor setting encourages people to bring children to see Shakespeare. I was amazed at how attentive they were. They couldn't possibly understand most of what was being spoken, but it didn't matter. Not a one of them looked bored. I guess that's why Shakespeare really is for the ages.

Romeo and Juliet, directed by Billy Trabaudo, is being performed on the Civic Plaza in Albuquerque through July 12, 2014. It is in repertory, so please check vortexabq.org for the performance schedule. The show starts at 7:30, and there is pre-show entertainment (on Sunday evenings, it is a lecture) starting about 7:00.


Photo: Alan Mitchell

--Dean Yannias



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