Monday, September 23, 2013
Theater review: Artes de la Rosa places Romeo & Juliet in 1950s Cuba
It's a classic tragedy with Latin flavors.
FORT WORTH The year is 1958, and within the next year Fidel Castro will end the six-year Cuban Revolution, ousting President Fulgencio Batista, and step into his political history as Cuba’s prime minister. Meanwhile, U.S. oil companies make their dirty presence known and our varied corporations come to call. Citizen protestors disappear or die in the streets, while at the same time Miss Cuba is crowned and Havana’s Hotel Riviera opens with its Copa Room headliner, Ginger Rogers.
It is in the midst of Cuba’s upheaval and imbalance that Artes de la Rosa has set another story of upheaval and injustice, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Producer and Director Adam Adolfo adapted the Bard’s work and changed settings to more effectively reach today’s audiences, as so many other theater companies do. Adolfo’s adaptation and creation simply works and is one of the most accessible interpretations of Shakespeare I have had the pleasure to see in quite some time.
He cut the script with a mighty quill, doing away with many of the subplots and minor characters. He condensed long monologues so more time could be spent having the characters talk one on one versus individual speech/monologues. He also lifted a few lines from another Shakespeare play to connect transitions, but “refuses to create lines myself." In Romeo & Juliet, he has characters recite others’ lines to “streamline cast size and play off the strengths of the actors.”
Adolfo also stated, “My goal when directing Shakespeare is to honor the language ... [and] for me personally it becomes about using Elizabethan theatrical devices in modern ways (music, dance, spectacle) so audiences can access the emotional story.” The result might be called Shakespeare as musically-enhanced Novella!
The director’s staging was naturalistic, actors easily moving through scenes quickly, sometimes simply turning and walking into the next one while talking. Set pieces came in and out smoothly and this style moved the story along, kept interest flowing and added a nice realism that blackouts and fades just don’t offer. However, placing Romeo and Juliet far upstage at the party, with all the dancers and guests down front, had the audience miss their important, fateful meeting and the beginning of their brief journey.
The tension is a little thick in the casino nightclub as the play opens, with insults and guns always at the ready. But the show must go on and The Balladeer keeps on singing, the showgirls keep on strutting and the dancers keep on dancing. Later on, the uninvited Montague boys and friends are handed invites to Lady Capulet’s soiree, the fated lovers meet ... and you better know the rest – or else get thee to a library!
Opening the cavernous, high-raised stage at the Rose Marine Theater to the back wall, designer Sarahi Salazar decorated Mi Rosa Dorada (My Golden Rose), the casino nightclub of mob impresario Montague, Romeo’s father. Heavy red velvet curtains draped the background while square-angled gold and white columns divided the entrances and exits into the upstage wings. A wide apron had steps in front to take actors up the center and side aisles of the house. Table-clothed round tables were placed far stage right and left and scattered in the front area of the stage, where the audience was invited to sit and watch the nightclub’s floor shows. A large chandelier hung above the front area and first row of seats and casino slot machines lined the walls on both sides of the lower stage area.
Pink and blue lights denoted the nightclub shows or the Capulet party and more generic or dimmer white and yellow lighting reflected Juliet’s bedroom, Father Laurence’s cell, the tomb and more. Gobo patterns were swirled on the side walls during the Apothecary ritual dance scene and the use of blackout and strobe lighting worked well during the recorded gunfire scene. Juan Gonzalez plotted his designs sparingly but with enough delineation to support the scene transitions effectively.
Properties went uncredited but were also simplified for quick scene transitions, the odd gun or machine gun, boutique shopping bags and boxes, flowers, Bloody Mary and hilariously-used half coconut shell and curly straw Pina Colada.
Marcus Lopez’ costumes were a visual delight for the most part, with only two misfires. Sleek black or white tuxedos on the mobsters and singer, and feather boa headdresses and short, boa tail-feathered outfits on the showgirls oozed that Havana club feel. Juliet’s simple little black dress or sleeveless top, checkered capris and white flats were the epitome of '50s youthful chic. Mamma Capulet was her severe best in a vintage body-hugging gold sequin sheath, and her original, flowing red jumpsuit and head wrap held all the attitude of Norma Desmond. Friends of Romeo dressed in black tank tops and black trousers, and Father Laurence wore a full black cassock or a light olive green priest-collared shirt and black pants when “off-duty.” Romeo and Juliet’s marriage, wedding night and deaths placed them and the pallbearers in loosely flowing white. The only out of place pieces were the two showgirls’ micro minis in either leatherette or hot pink. I didn’t see anything remotely similar when looking at pictures of nightclub dancers and showgirls of that era. And the actresses’ corsets were not fully laced in back, making me a bit nervous of an unexpected reveal! Women’s hair was upswept, teased and flipped up, while several of the men slicked and backcombed their long locks for that '50s suaveness.
Sound effects were minimal as this was a play dominated by music and song. Sweet-singing birds outside Juliet’s bedroom window, the gunfire, church bells or the sound of coins dropping out of the slot machine were all I remembered. There is only one real gunshot (for the gun abhorrent such as myself). The speakers and acoustics at the theater were tremendous and well-balanced so you could hear each and every word, that is when the music and the singer’s volume didn’t overpower the actors’ lines, which happened during a couple of prime speeches. There was confusion as to why Romeo’s volume and reverberation both went up during his desperation speech at the Apothecary’s door — was it for eerie effect or a mistake — either way it was a bit out of place.
West Side Story has most often been recognized as a '50s, urban take on Romeo and Juliet, and this play’s music choices replicated the musical’s style with a Cuban beat. Adolfo selected songs from many time periods that, in several places, beautifully paralleled the scene. Pre-show and intermission music was mostly big band or orchestral samba numbers by Mambo Kings or sung by Celia Cruz that wafted a cool vibe over the house. Recorded music sung live put the audience squarely in the middle of the nightclub scene. Using “Cup of Life” – you know, “Go, go, go, ale, ale, ale” – at the party was a hoot. Songs made famous by Latino stars Gloria Estefan, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony added sweet icing on the Cuban cake, and the use of a Santerian chant brought ancient ritual to the Apothecary scene. By far the best use of music and song was “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” sung far upstage by The Balladeer as Romeo and Juliet stole away from the party and had that all important (and very long) first kiss (“you kiss by the book”). The scene was one of the most creatively and visually perfect and a moment I will often remember. Another memorable scene had two dancers begin a pas de deux as The Balladeer and his female partner sang “No Me Ames” downstage center at the nightclub. The dancers slowly exit as Romeo and Juliet begin to undress on the chaise lounge. You essentially watched two completely different scenes played simultaneously in tangled and perfect unison, another moment to cherish.
Choreography in Romeo & Juliet enhanced the music, the songs and added that little extra to make the nightclub feel complete. Rebekah Ruiz and Austin Ray Beck created amazing numbers that allowed every dancer, whether more or less experienced, to shine and every dance to look spectacular. Ruiz and Beck had a solo number performing turns, jetes and lifts with sharp precision. And the number for “Cup of Life” was a fun cross between New York’s The Latin Quarter and Dallas’ JR’s. Never once did I see one or two better ensemble dancers stand out over the rest, and that is the sign of great choreography.
Another layer of realism for this production came in the fight scenes, using either fists or some rather wieldy knives. Adolfo and Assistant Director Joshua Sherman choreographed them and each put the actors through their paces. The turns, flips, rolls and lunges were precisely executed and their heavy breathing at the end of a fight was no put-on. The fights were to-the-death realistic and most punches were as close as I’ve seen onstage.
This play also paralleled West Side Story in its conflicts between a Hispanic family, The Montagues, and a Caucasian family, The Capulets. Hatred between these families ran deep and the actors portraying them showed their loyalty to each with the kind of passion they would have if they were their own.
Some of the actors not in the two immediate clans rounded out the story and were just as important. Both the showgirls, Rosaline and Ophelia, played by Rebekah Ruiz and Kimberly Butler respectively, strutted their stuff, danced on the stage and around the audience tables and represented that certain style of entertainment left these days to older Las Vegas casinos. Havana’s royal Prince, played by Kyle R. Trentham, shows up when the families need a ruling and Trentham played the Prince with style and class.
Poor Paris is left without a bride and I don’t even know if he was invited to the party. Jacob Harris’s character was debonairly smarmy and irritatingly nice as the man who Juliet is being forced to marry. Romeo’s father, Montague, as played by Stephen Madrid, had few scenes but his grief at the death of the lovers was heartfelt and realistic.
Adolfo changed the character Capulet, Juliet’s father, to Abraham, here played by Cameron Allsup. However, I was confused as to just who this character was. Allsup looked too young to be Juliet’s father, walked behind Lady Capulet as though her servant, yet Juliet called him “Lord." Allsup played this milquetoast character well, cowing to the lady’s wishes yet demanding obedience from Juliet. As I said, his role was confusing but he played Abraham well.
Lorens Portalatin played both a nightclub singer, one of the dancers, and the Santerian Apothecary who gives Romeo the deadly vial. Portalatin’s ritual dance was wild, frantic and performed well, but it was her singing that made her a standout. A beautiful metzo-soprano, her duet with Michael Alonzo’s Balthasar The Balladeer was mesmerizing. Her natural stage chemistry floated off the stage and down to the theater seats and the duet of “No Me Ames” as Romeo and Juliet made love was as sensual as it gets.
In the Capulet corner, cousin Tybalt was played with a huge chip on his shoulder by Parker Fitzgerald. Ready with a gun or a knife, Tybalt lived to fight, and like a soldier who’s seen too much battle, Fitzgerald knew that kind of man well and played him accordingly. His fight scenes worked and his rolls and back somersaults showcased his athleticism.
Kristi Taylor portrayed Nurse with a lighter comedic flair than I’d seen from other actresses. Taylor’s timing was spot on, her understanding of when to push a line or pull back precise, and her character’s love of Juliet and, surprisingly, Romeo was real and without pretense. Taylor is a large woman and I was impressed that she not only knew her body, but also how to use it for the greatest comedic or dramatic impact.
Adolfo switched the lines between Capulet and Lady Capulet, giving her the more commanding dialogue and making it a matriarchal society where women rule. Jule Nelson Duac’s Lady Capulet was portrayed as a woman with no interest or time for her husband, much less her daughter. Haughty and self-absorbed, her interests lie more in her looks and cousin Tybalt. Duac’s powerful performance made LC the only true villain of the play, a vessel for hate, and the antithesis of Juliet and Romeo’s love.
And in the other corner is the Montague clan and friends, comrades all. Romeo’s homeboys consist of Mercutio, Benvolio, Sampson, and sometimes Balthasar The Balladeer. Eduardo Aguilar played Sampson with some healthy swag, always there to defend his friends. Aguilar was light on his feet as both a dancer and a fighter. He was used to play other minor characters in scenes and had good stage presence. Poor Mercutio meets his end far too soon, but in Adrian Godinez’ short time onstage, he rocked it. As another of Romeo’s friends and quite the braggart, Mercutio is bold, bawdy, and loves his friends as much as himself, and Godinez portrayed him as such to the very end. His deadly fight scene was done effectively and fatefully.
Austin Ray Beck as Benvolio, Romeo’s closest friend, also had a braggadocio about him, just as Mercutio. His swagger rivaled Sampson’s. But Beck’s portrayal left him more of a mystery character, a sly man who disappeared in a group only to appear when needed. His scenes with Romeo showed their deep friendship and brotherly devotion to each other. Beck was a fabulous dancer, moved deftly around the stage during fights, and quickly entered and exited from different parts of the theatre with ease. Director Adolfo played with the story a bit and staged Tybalt’s death with a touch of mystery as well. Your understanding of what actually happened will determine how you think of both him and Romeo for the remainder of the play – something to watch for and ponder.
The last of Romeo’s friends, but mainly portraying Balthasar The Balladeer at the nightclub, was Michael Alonzo. His stage presence, even when merely sitting on the edge of it, his performance as the singer, and his spectacular tenor voice, all made Alonzo the play’s heartthrob and a delight to watch each time he came onstage. Balthasar is also the narrator of the play, the poet who opens and closes the play, connecting the scenes for better understanding. Alonzo sang all of the songs throughout the play, and his performance underscored the songs’ importance to the scenes. The huge applause he garnered at the curtain call was well deserved.
In what is supposed to be the neutral corner, Father Laurence, as played by Clyde Berry, is a bit of a rogue priest. Slipping out of his religious garb, he could be seen at the slot machines, drink in hand, and then suddenly asking those of us at the nearby tables for “donations” to the church (which I believe might actually have been to play the slots!). Berry had the fun of playing both this side of Laurence and the more devoted, caring man whom both Juliet and Romeo come to for assistance. The only scenes I wish had not been cut concerned the letter to Father Laurence that was delayed, therefore making the scene at the tomb with the priest less tension-filled and terrifying. Berry kept Laurence a bit cool and distant but you could see his love for both the lovers underneath and that is what kept his character interesting and a solid presence either onstage or kneeling in the center aisle.
The heart of this play is, of course, the love between Romeo and Juliet. The director's notes asked us to remember how we felt the moment we fell in love. He wanted to avoid the typical staging of tragedy and loss, and instead show the joy and hope that the two lovers find in each other, and celebrate the innocence, exuberance and power of love. The two actors, Kevin Acosta and Courtney Harris delivered all that and so much more. I’m glad Adolfo moved Juliet’s age to a more appropriate 18. It also gave her a tad more maturity, though Harris still played Juliet with a giddy innocence that only made her untimely end more heartbreaking. Harris transitioned her character easily through different emotions as she quickly gained a more womanly demeanor and a deeper understanding of what true love is. Harris had a wonderful stage presence that made you fall under Juliet’s beguiling spell. Her character’s behavior with either the Nurse or Lady Capulet was so very different and you understood the games Juliet had to play to be with Romeo. The only scene that was unrealistic was Juliet’s death scene, but that was more the fault of the director’s choices than the actor’s. She also had a tendency to speak too fast when her character got excited, something that can be corrected with experience. Harris is still a senior in high school, but her stage maturity denies her true age, a mark of a very good actress indeed.
Romeo tries to be the cool one of his group, a lover and womanizer, but in reality he hasn’t a clue about any of that, so when he bumps into Juliet and then sees her at the party, he has no earthly idea as to what just hit him. Acosta easily showed us both sides of this young man, new to the world of true love. Over the course of the play, he transitioned his character from a nonchalant, carefree homeboy to a mature man with more profound responsibilities. His fight scenes were well done and physically demanding. Love is so new to Romeo that he stumbles into trouble, not keeping his street-wise knowledge sharp, but letting his heart lead. Acosta beautifully played through Romeo’s emotional layers as he catapulted toward disaster, and he led the audience along with him as each layer fell away.
As The Balladeer uttered those last lines, “A glooming peace this morning with it brings,” the showgirls returned to strut and pose onstage, the mobsters reappeared in their tuxes at the nightclub, and the Balladeer started to sing again. It was as if everything went back to normal, as if nothing was learned from these lovers’ deaths. A bit of a déjà vu tragic feeling wafted over the stage and into the house, a feeling that this story too sadly paralleled the deaths of our own youth on our streets and schools seen on nightly newscasts. Artes de la Rosa holds the mirror up as a reminder, “to have more talk of these sad things.” This adaptation has a subtitle: Defy the Stars ... Believe in Love. That phrase alone makes their Romeo & Juliet a most worthy venture and a captivating production full of wonderful music and talented performances.
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