The best thing about freeFall Theatre’s decidedly uneven Romeo + Juliet is Sarah McAvoy as the female half of the star-crossed lovers. This is an exceedingly persuasive Juliet: she seems young enough (we learn in the dialogue that she’s 13), appears totally captivated by handsome Romeo (of whom she knows next to nothing), and, most important of all, speaks her lines as if every word has sense and emotion solidly behind it. This last strength is no small one: whereas Jesse LeNoir’s Romeo rushes through his speeches as if he were in a hurry to get free from heavy and constraining blocks of text, McAvoy never releases a word that’s not well-motivated and emotionally distinct.
You can feel for McAvoy’s Juliet: she’s as human and credible as a character in Tennessee Williams, delivers her blank verse as if it were the natural patois of adolescents everywhere, and combines in one inspired impersonation the naïveté, stubbornness, passion, and simple courage of an all-too-human young woman who has no doubt that Love Is Everything. I’ve seen various Juliets over the years on stage and screen, and although some have been more glamorous, none was quite so convincing. Watching McAvoy, I can imagine that I know what Shakespeare intended.
Which I can’t say about LeNoir as the man Juliet dies for. This dashing actor looks the part, I suppose, but beyond that offers a Romeo who comes across unfocused and insufficiently rehearsed. Does he love Juliet? Well, he says he does. But he doesn’t seem to understand the very words pouring from his lips, gives almost every line equal emphasis, and lacks the kind of specific, human personality that makes truth out of fiction and leads us to care about a character’s fate.
If this production’s Juliet is flesh-and-blood, its Romeo is a two-dimensional machine, producing language but not meaning, to the point that we finally give up trying to interpret him or his words. After more than two hours in his presence, all I really know about him is that he’s talkative. Between the lines, there’s next to nothing to read.
The other main problem with this production is that there’s just too much double-casting and not enough effort made to distinguish between the different characters single actors play. I fully understand that live theater costs good money, and that it’s sometimes not possible to hire as many performers as there are parts. But the key to good double-casting is making it tolerable through changes of delivery, costume, hair-pieces — anything that might help us understand that now we’re watching not Montague but Paris, not Tybalt but Lady Capulet.
The freeFall production offers us little such assistance. To begin with, Scott Daniel’s costumes are almost all black (R+J are the exceptions), so Roxanne Fay as Juliet’s Nurse dresses almost exactly like Fay as Friar Laurence, making it repeatedly necessary to remind oneself who’s who.
Then there’s the cross-gender casting that seems the result of economic necessity and not some wise postmodern view on sexuality. So Jennifer Christa Palmer makes absolutely no sense as the malevolent Tybalt, and even the talented Fay — looking like Joan of Arc with her short hair — isn’t credible for a moment as Friar Laurence, however well she speaks his lines.
In the confusion that results — and I can’t overemphasize the fault of the costuming — we find ourselves searching for actors who stand out in spite of their multiple duties. And we do find a few: there’s Michael Shenefelt, who’s such a wonderful Mercutio we can simply ignore the fact that he also plays Abram, Prince, Apothecary and Page. And there’s Gene D’Alessandro, a memorable Capulet whatever you think of his Sampson; and Chris Crawford, a splendid Benvolio, whatever you think of his Balthasar and Friar John.
Director Eric Davis has taken a great risk with so much double-casting and, I’m sorry to report, has uncharacteristically failed. I also could have done without so much groin-thrusting when male characters speak about sex; we in the audience are not so dense that we need these visual accompaniments.
The play takes place on Matt Davis’ two-level, metallic set — useful enough without being very attractive — and is divided into two acts instead of the textual five. I must admit that by the end of the evening, I was impatient to be gone — there just wasn’t enough on stage to hold my attention.
Still, I’m glad I saw McAvoy as Juliet: she almost made my hours in the theater worthwhile. And I’m glad freeFall is still bringing us Shakespeare. I hope this problematic production is instructive — and will be followed by many better-conceived successes.
Gender essentialism. Thumbs down.
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