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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Romeo and Juliet and
Cyrano


Nicole Erb
Photo by Mark Garvin
Lantern Theater's Romeo and Juliet is one wild ride. At one point it's a romance; at another it's a self-mocking comedy; and at other points it's shockingly raw and violent, with characters exploding with rage at unexpected moments. It's outwardly traditional—the costumes and sets place us squarely in 16th century Verona—but there's a vitality to director Charles McMahon's production that brings freshness to this most familiar of Shakespeare's tales.

At the center of McMahon's production is Nicole Erb's sensational performance as Juliet. It's a blast watching Erb giggling and rocking back and forth on her heels in the balcony scene, barely able to contain the joy of first love. A few seconds later she shuts her eyes and lets her paramour's name roll around on her lips: "O Romeo, Rooooo-me-ooooo ... ." Erb's Juliet is very much a temperamental teenager; she rolls her eyes in embarrassment at having to deal with both her stuffy mother (K.O. DelMarcelle) and her dense nurse (a hilarious Ceal Phelan). And in one of the show's funniest moments, she screams impatiently at her offstage mother for having the nerve to interrupt her during her big scene. Yet Erb also matures before our eyes, bringing contemplative grace to her monologues in the show's second half.

For a tragedy, this Romeo and Juliet sure has a lot of laughs. Mercutio and Benvolio (the excellent, commanding Charlie DelMarcelle and Kevin Meehan) taunt Tybalt and the nurse with infectious glee. And Jake Blouch scores as Peter, an illiterate messenger who struggles so hard to understand a message that he actually hands it to an audience member to read. But the comedy here is never done in a camp way. And it all serves a purpose: when tragedy occurs, the tragedy hits all the harder. There's no better example of this than Leonard C. Haas' turn as Juliet's father, Capulet. He initially comes across as kind and hospitable, so when he explodes in rage at Juliet over her refusal to partake in an arranged marriage, it's shocking. And the opening scene, which depicts a Verona full of casual, brutal violence, drew gasps from the audience (J. Alex Cordaro provides the exciting fight choreography).

Frank X deserves special acknowledgment for the measured dignity he brings to Friar Laurence. It's fascinating to see his anger build when Romeo first tells him of his newfound love, and it's affecting to see him struggle to contain that anger and do what's best.

Only one performance in this Romeo and Juliet is disappointing, and what makes it doubly disappointing is that it's from the actor playing Romeo. Sean Lally is a Romeo who has a hard time expressing himself; his voice is tremulous and he seems reluctant to look anyone in the eye. That could have been an interesting way of expressing Romeo's insecurity, but it's limited, and the approach soon wears out its welcome. Lally's Romeo is impulsive but unfocused, and doesn't show the same development that we see in Erb's Juliet. It's hard to warm up to him. As a result, Juliet earns more of the audience's sympathy than Romeo does. Romeo's role is further diminished by cuts in Shakespeare's text: there aren't many, but Romeo's mother has been eliminated, and his father—played by a woman (Phelan in drag)—is a peripheral character. By spending so much more time on Juliet's life than on Romeo's, McMahon's production feels slightly unbalanced.

On the whole, though, the Lantern's Romeo and Juliet is an invigorating production. It's great when a play you think you know by heart seems brand new.

Romeo and Juliet has been extended through April 8, 2012, and is presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets. Ticket prices range from $20 to $36, with $10 student rush tickets available, and may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 215-829-0395 or online at www.lanterntheater.org.



Jessica Cummings, Eric Hissom and Luigi Sottile
Photo by Mark Garvin
So you've seen Romeo and Juliet, but you still haven't had your fill of classic romantic dramas with swordfights, a balcony scene, and a cast of nine actors? Then you might want to check out the Arden Theatre's Cyrano. This new translation of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac reveals that the play isn't quite a classic of Shakespearean stature; its sentimentality feels too calculated to be completely satisfying. But it still works quite well, and the Arden's fast-moving (but still nearly three-hour) version ends up having a strong emotional impact.

Directed by Aaron Posner and translated by Michael Hollinger (both are credited with the adaptation), Cyrano is a streamlined version of Rostand's story. The efficiency shows not just in the paring down of the cast (with some actors playing up to six roles), but in its clever method of storytelling. This is best demonstrated in a marvelous sequence that shows Cyrano, the most daring swordsman in all of 17th century France, dispatching one hundred attackers in a single night. While other scenes display impressive fencing (Dale Anthony Girard is the fight director), this scene actually displays none; Cyrano and his enemies stand apart and wave their swords at each other, but those swords never actually touch. With semi-darkness as cover, Posner and his crew imply a grand battle without showing any violence at all. And it's not the only scene with audacious staging by Posner: the final scene takes place fourteen years after the previous one, and the passage of time is suggested simply by a passel of autumn leaves falling to the ground. Daniel Conway's scenic design uses elegant woodwork and wrought iron railings and is backed by a wall of video screens enclosed by antique-style picture frames, allowing a multitude of settings—everything from a battlefield to a pastry shop—to be evoked by one single set.

Cyrano is, as one character describes him, a "Soldier, musician /Verbal magician." (Rostand's play was written in rhyming couplets, but Hollinger's translation mostly sticks to straight vernacular prose.) Cyrano longs for Roxane, a woman who is so beautiful that "compared with her, every other woman may as well be a man in a dress." How fitting, then, that in this version, every other woman is a man in a dress. (Scott Greer gives a wonderfully broad performance as Roxane's maid.)

Despite his physical and verbal dexterity, Cyrano is so self-consciousness about his own appearance—and his legendary long nose—that he feels powerless to pursue Roxane. Instead he uses his gifts to help the man Roxane prefers, Christian, a dullard who admits "I'm just not very good with the language thing."

Hollinger's script is full of witty lines like that one; my favorite is when Roxane accuses Cyrano of having "poets envy." But while the script puts all the right elements in their places, there's a bit of hollowness at the core of Cyrano. That's not just because of its somewhat rote romance, but also because of the performance of Eric Hissom in the title role. Cyrano is described as "Larger than life ... so much larger he's practically fictional!" But there's little that's larger than life about Hissom's portrayal; his take on a flamboyant character is oddly subdued at times. He makes Cyrano completely sympathetic, but he often seems so restrained that it's easy to see why Roxane doesn't return his love—she probably doesn't even notice he's there, nose or no nose.

Jessica Cummings makes a most beguiling Roxane, even though she has little to do besides flash a radiant, Julia Roberts-like smile. Luigi Sottile's engaging Christian is no one-dimensional moron, just a gallant soldier who fails in one crucial area. There's strong support from Keith Randolph Smith as Cyrano's supportive friend, Benjamin Lloyd as an ingratiating villain, and Doug Hara, who plays several small roles including a drunk who has a great way with a pratfall.

If Cyrano isn't all it could be, and if its central performance lacks what Cyrano himself might call panache, it's still a sprightly, touching, and highly enjoyable production.

Cyrano runs through April 15, 2012, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $45 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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