Play: “Romeo & Juliet”
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Missouri History Museum, Lindell at DeBaliviere
Dates: April 21, 22, 24, 25, 28, 29, May 1, 2
Tickets: From $25.50 to $37.50; contact 314-442-3283 or www.newjewishtheatre.org
Story: In the British Mandate of Palestine, between December 1947 and March 1948, warring factions of Arabs and Jews continue to fight over land set aside to create a Jewish state, a subject of contention since the League of Nations entrusted Great Britain in July 1922 to establish a Jewish land in the Middle East with historic Jewish identity. The British governor of Jerusalem, General Escalus, presides over the simmering animosity of the Jewish House of Montague, led by Montague of the Hagganah defense organization, and the Arab House of Capulet, led by the Arab Legion’s Capulet.
A party at the Capulets provides an auspicious opportunity for the affable Romeo Montague to meet young Juliet Capulet, and the two immediately fall in love. Their ardor stirs intense hatred in Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, while Romeo’s equally hot-blooded friend Mercutio, a member of the more militaristic Irgun faction, retaliates against Tybalt’s hostilities and lays in motion a series of tragic events for both houses.
Highlights: Director Robin Weatherall has adapted Shakespeare’s enduring romantic tragedy to the period just prior to the establishment of Israel as a political state in the aftermath of World War II. His sweeping story is given its world premiere in a handsome production mounted by the New Jewish Theatre at the Missouri History Museum as part of the latter’s Performing Arts series.
Weatherall frames the drama with video footage and newspaper clippings shown on a screen behind the proceedings, with the able assistance of video editor Michael Perkins, to bring a cinema verite style to the proceedings. Weatherall’s Middle Eastern-flavored sound design enhances the effect and helps establish the mood, as does Dunsi Dai’s set design, which incorporates a pair of stairs at the Capulet end of the stage to accommodate the famous balcony scene, a middle area for confrontations, a rather simple Montague home at stage right and a sheet in the form of an ominous cloud looming above the action.
Weatherall also has assembled an impressive cast to help tell his version of the Bard’s tragedy, led by a spirited and captivating performance by Meg Rodd Gunther as the passionate Juliet. Brooke Edwards is a fiery Mercutio in a bit of gender-bending as a female solider in the militant Irgun organization, Mark Kelley brings a nicely understated portrayal to Benvolio and Charlie Barron effectively captures the roiling rage of Tybalt.
Other Info: Problems with this production, however are plentiful. For starters, Weatherall should have settled for wearing the two caps of adapter and sound designer and relinquished directing duties to someone else, someone who could have edited and tightened the three-hour presentation and made more prudent casting choices.
While all of the performers are accomplished artists, Rusty Gunther simply is miscast as Romeo, neither conveying the depth nor dimension of Romeo’s ardor convincingly enough. Similarly, youthful-looking Tyler Vickers doesn’t match the image of the powerful governor. Additionally, while Edwards does a fine job in her role, making Mercutio female in this adaptation just doesn’t work for me.
Another puzzlement are the costumes by talented designer Michele Friedman Siler, in which Juliet’s nurse appears to be the best-dressed character on stage, Benvolio appears dressed for an American high school class, circa 1962, and Romeo looks funky in a fedora from a Hollywood flick. What’s up with that?
Lou Bird contributed the fight choreography, Mark Kelley served as fight captain, Helen Hoepfner added the properties and Glenn Dunn provided the lighting design, all satisfactory for the cause.
Aaron Orion Baker is fine in the minor role of Paris, and Kevin Beyer is properly pensive and paternal as Laurence, here a British Army chaplain. David Wassilak fills the roles of Montague and a seedy drug dealer (a part unintentionally comic), Amy Loui is the distraught Lady Capulet and Michael Perkins does satisfactory work as Arab sergeant Peter.
B. Weller brings power and menace to the role of Capulet in the first act, but his fulminations at his daughter’s attempts at independence in Act II don’t quite hit the mark, veering too close to unintended and unfortunate comedy as a result. As the nurse, Aarya Sara Locker brings both wisdom and resignation to the situation, both on stage and in the black and white footage that brackets the production.
While ambitious and laudatory in scope, this rendition of “Romeo and Juliet” ultimately proves unsuccessful in its quest for identity.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.