Regional Reviews: St. Louis
R+J: A Telephone Play, or
Imagine everything Romeo and Juliet could be, in a modern contextromantic, snarky, with lots of group dance and teenaged exasperation and humor. Then, just for some good, antagonistic fun, throw in all the things you kids today hate most about theater. And shove it right back in our big, dumb adult faces.
But just to be clear, this is not Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare's tragic romance is just a trellis for six authors here, to explore themes of growing up and falling in love. Of course, it really helps if you've seen Romeo and Juliet, because the six short plays make frequent (and sometimes overwhelming) reference to it. But it's more like everything that could be going on in the hearts of the two young lovers in rampant, seemingly uncontrolled, chaos. I loved it: it sets the mind on fire.
Every one of the six playlets is charming and funny and delightful (and occasionally sharply disturbing), but two are especially exciting: Zhu Yi's The Offended Audience, which is the "theater of alienation" gone wild; and the somewhat PG-17 Two Character Play by James Ryan Caldwell.
In the latter story, Juliet (Rachel Tibbetts) re-examines her own teenaged diaries, remembering all the things she first felt about Romeo, on what she clearly expects will be her wedding day. It's completely engrossing, as everything's been winnowed down to just her in the spotlight, after every other aspect of youthful romance has been explored.
Lucy Cashion directs this avalanche of madness, while still maintaining the light, inspired charm of everyone on stage. And in spite of a lot of very tight choreography, there's also a stunning amount of youthful, mad rushing around; contrasted (early on) with some lounge singing by Carl Overly, Jr., as he soulfully contemplates his adolescent role in the world.
There's also something obliquely funny about all those great big dance numbersthey give every appearance of being thrilling, tribal experiencesbut each time the dance is done, we rediscover how desperately alone and awkward each of these teenagers feels in their subsequent scenes. It is the wonder, and the horror, of finding one's place.
Things start out with a great, jagged edge, and a maddening chorus of overlapping quotes from the original play. And soon, Juliet (Ms. Tibbetts) is thrown into jealousy by a phone message from another girl (in Rosaline Called, written by Camila Le-Bert). But, like anyone embarking on a powerful romance, Juliet must also ponder what kind of nut-case family she may actually be marrying into.
Will Bonfiglio and vivacious Mollie Amburgey begin testing the limits of romance, wading out into the audience to search for prey in Still Standing by Otso Huopaniemi. The Offended Audience extends the theme, in a relentless (but essentially harmless) attack on the "fourth wall." The same pair proposes a series of torments for the ticket-buying public; and later, the strangely enthralling Cara Barresi, along with Ms. Tibbetts, throws a very modern glare on the clichés of love and bonding in the 21st century.
In Number 4 by John Douglas Weidner, the prologue of Romeo and Juliet is reworked, and Ms. Tibbetts falls hopelessly in love with the school's snooty rake (played by a massively appalling Mr. Bonfiglio). Mitch Eagles (by turns comically swaggering and deeply neurotic) is greatly admirable trying to imagine his entire future love life, compressed into about 30 seconds, as an irresistible figure of fantasy.
I have to apologize to playwright Samara Weiss, I think. I somehow conflated her penultimate one-act Untitled into that last paragraph. There's just so much going on, it gets hard to keep it all straight. And after all of that, Ms. Tibbetts ends the cycle by sweeping us up in Two Character Play: showing just how rapturous (and fatal) love can be.
No matter how you add it up, though, it really is a tremendous amount of delightful, thought-provoking material, tightly packed into about 90 minutes. And if you stay till about 9:55 p.m., there's also a great episode of Shakespearean-inspired improv by Mr. Eagles and Randy Brachman as "The Bodysnatchers," which I also enjoyed very much.
Shows are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, through May 8, 2015, at 6238 Alexander Drive, south of Wydown on Skinker Blvd. Surprisingly excellent music, sound, light and costume work throughout. For more information visit www.eratheatre.org. (ERA, in this case, stands for "Equally Represented Arts" and, based on all the movement and dance and original music and fancy lighting, this show definitely lives up to the name.)
The Wedding Party