Review: Romeo and Juliet by The Baron's Men
by Michael Meigs
Romeo and Juliet is probably the first work of Shakespeare that most of us encounter, and sometimes it's the only one. That story of two star-crossed lovers is the most likely opportunity to interest distracted adolescents in the work of the 'Bard.' Pedagogically it's pretty effective: Two impetuous and self-centered teenagers flout convention and through a series of mishaps and misapprehensions end their lives in a creepy crypt, desperately disappointed. What's not to like, kids? Maybe the fact that none of the television production companies have dared to offer a series with a zombie R&J?
The idea's been tried, by the way, in a movie, in books and even in a PG drama script titled Zombeo and Juliet.
The linking of love and death is old stuff in Western culture (vide Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont's 1940 meditation Love in the Western World), and Shakespeare's crowd-pleaser cannily exploits the theme. This being Shakespeare, however, there's far more to Romeo and Juliet than just infatuation, frustration and suicide.
These kids inhabit a microcosm divided by ancient unexplained rancor, a small city-state ruled by an exasperated prince and counseled by a Church represented by a holy friar who's neither particularly ethnical nor particularly competent. The deck is stacked against them from the start.
It's in the depiction of the wider world of the play that the Baron's Men excel with their production at the Curtain Theatre. It winds down with final performances on Thursday, Shakespeare's birthday, April 23 and the following two evenings. This is your chance to witness the complexity both of Shakespeare's work and of the dramatic practice of Shakespeare's stage. Richard Garriott's Curtain Theatre, tucked away on the north bank of the Colorado only about 20-25 minutes from downtown, is a proper Renaissance-style outdoor thrust stage with a two-storied semicircle of roof-sheltered seating. Within that compact wooden half-O the Baron's Men costume the cast in gorgeous period-appropriate Elizabethan finery. The scope and sweep of the action across that wide stage reinforce the message that you've entered a full and complete world.
The company's performance of a text essentially unabridged assures that you'll stay there with them for a good three hours. That's an engagement some might find daunting in our age of soundbites, swiping and scanning, but it's a rewarding one.
A knowledgeable observer of Austin theatre commented to me in passing that the Baron's Men, once a sort of Ren-Fair exercise, have over recent years proved themselves to be a group seriously devoted to early modern drama. I concur and raise the ante: This company of dedicated volunteers is a further demonstration of the many-faceted sophistication of the theatre world of Central Texas. Austin has a branded reputation as a live musical capital and enjoys word-of-mouth renown as an incubator for new work and zany fringe productions. As is so often the case in labeling, those simple characterisations are clichéd and inadequate. There is so very much more in live theatre art to discuss.
But enough with the soapbox, already. Director Liegh Hegedus has orchestrated an intent and energetic staging of this familiar work. It departs from common practice and the canon by casting women in two key roles normally performed by male actors: Eva McQuade as the free-spirited Mercutio and Samantha Smith as Friar Laurence, the cleric whose schemes unwittingly set up the culminating disasters.
Casting McQuade is a clever stroke. She presents Mercutio unapologetically as a flamboyant woman, a 'roaring girl' dismissive of convention and derisive of romance, status and social division. This Mercutio is boisterous, smut-mouthed, and perfectly willing to exploit her femininity to taunt swaggerers and get the better of anyone. Even though we know it's inevitable, the fatal wound she receives from Tybalt at the lip of the stage is a shocker. Her curse on both houses as she staggers offstage is the moment when hope is extinguished.
The casting of Smith as the friar is less effective, principally because she is the only player to counterfeit a character's sex, counting upon our suspension of disbelief to make it whole. In a stage world where no other actors attempt that masquerade, she stands out and falls short each time she engages. Not because of her performance, which is carefully considered and crafted to give the friar a misguided simplicity, a dangerous combination of guiless incompetence and would-be cunning. Rather, the casting decision is a lingering indication that the Baron's Men is still a community theatre, a band where typically more women than men are keen to tread the boards. In that respect Smith is just as evident here as she was in Poor Shadows' Gallathea by John Lily, where she doubled as Phillida's father and the master alchemist, both unavoidably male roles.
Casey Jones as Romeo has the cheerful good will of a puppy, glad to be amused by friends Mercutio and Benvolio (Ameer Mobarak). At the Capulets' costume party as a thoughtless prank, he catches sight of Juliet and he's hopelessly lost (forgetting instantly about Rosaline, the unseen beauty for whom he'd been pining).
Juliet responds immediately, of course, and director Hegedus somewhat improbably situates their wooing and first kiss smack dab in the middle of the festive crowd. Lindsay M. Palinsky as Juliet is a good deal more focused than her beau; she's a girl with her own mind. In the balcony scene her emphatic 'wherefore art thou Romeo?' is focused directly at the problem -- the deep and unexplained enmnity between the two clans -- and has no touch of dreamy languish. After the disastrous duels rip apart the civil peace, Romeo groans and wails at his sentence of banishment, the picture of a self-pitying adolescent.
Palinsky's Juliet, in contrast, shows firm resolve and a will to take whatever measures may be required to get her way. She's strikingly attractive. Leanna Holmquist as her mother, Lady Capulet, is equally decisive when speaking to her daughter and has features much like those of Juliet; it's fun to wonder whether in other circumstances Romeo might have eventually turned out to be as full of himself as the ranting paternalistic Lord Capulet (Chris Casey). Juliet's ready to dupe her dad without a second thought. If it hadn't been for that confounded tardy friar and the uncoordinated elixirs, she probably could have managed Romeo just as well.
An unfortunate director's choice somewhat mars the final spectacle in the tomb, however. Juliet lies shrouded on a platform upstage center when Romeo breaks into the mausoleum. Unaccountably, Hegedus positions Romeo downstage of the feigned corpse, leaning over her or kneeling with his back to us throughout his anguished laments and his suicide. Rather than viewing his pain, we hear it only, offered no more than the spectacle of his back and hindquarters.
The cast has good diction, projection and mastery of the text. They entertain us with the intrigues and touch us with the spectacle of the wasted lives of these young lovers. After all the tragedies have befallen, Friar Laurence has confessed, and the prince has admonished both houses, the Baron's Men conclude the work with a Curtain call executed as a graceful dance, a modernized version of the jig with which Shakespeare's companies ended their entertainments. And they're happy to greet you outside the theatre to share their enthusiasm for the experience and for the play.
7400 Coldwater Canyon Dr.
Austin, TX, 78730
April 4 – 12 (Friday – Saturday) and April 17 – 26 (Thursday – Saturday) at 8 p.m. Pre-show market opens at 7 p.m.
Thursday nights: $10;
Friday & Saturday nights: $15
For the first time, we will be offering hot and cold food options that can be pre-ordered online. Hot-plates are available by pre-order only.
For tickets and for more information visit www.thebaronsmen.org