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Shot Through the Ear With a Love Song

Romeo and Juliet, A Review



NoDef Drama Critic Jim Fitzmorris heads to City Park to see The NOLA Project's latest NOMA staging: Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet.'

 

Boisterous, hip, ballsy, challenging and brash are all words that come easily for any local theatre critic looking to describe the work of The NOLA Project. Alternating between site-specific works and more traditional fare, the young company strives for a rollicking tone in their work that involves high-octane stakes and inappropriate humor. In other words, they create work that reflects their youth. But in their latest production, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in the New Orleans Museum of Art's Great Hall, the collective crafted a show that can best be described with a word I never thought would be applied to their productions: elegant. 

 

Romeo and Juliet
Where: The New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park
When: Dec. 11, 15, 17-18; 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $24

Under the direction of James Bartelle, this Romeo and Juliet is a light snowfall, a gentle bookend to their raucous Sculpture Garden triumph, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is not the nearly perfect tapestry that earlier production was, but the totality of its effect shows the company’s growing maturity as it learns to trust words, eases off the throttle and sweeps us away with its second love-obsessed Shakespeare production. When coupled with the generous commitment of City Park and NOMA, this production serves notice to the theatrical community that the company is seeking to become the preeminent producers of The Bard in both our city and state.

 

The production literally swirls from an opening brawl on the museum’s front steps and into its stately foyer. Bathed in Joan Long’s soft, icy light, The Capulet/Montague blood feud is conceived by Bartelle and dance choreographer Eric Thielman as a series of alternating joyous and tragic dances, leading to the inescapable end. A sweet Juliet, Kristin Witterschein, and a dashing Romeo, Alex Martinez Wallace, tango to the sounds of a live string quartet at a court masque and are lost in each other instantly. That unaccredited quartet of Francis Scully, Rebecca Crenshaw, Amanda Wuerstlin, and Jack Craft underscore a large portion of the tale of the star-crossed lovers and are a lovely compliment to the musicality of the uniformly strong cast.  

 

Neither overly cloying nor too-wise-for-their-ages, the two leads acquit themselves well, but I found that Wallace’s matter-of-fact sincerity made the strongest impact on me. His early wonder about his infatuation with the fleeting Rosaline is infused with bemusement at his own silliness. He sees the foolishness in it all, and he still gives over to love’s power. It makes him instantly likable. More importantly, it allows us to root for him to attempt to pull off the happy ending we know is impossible. The conclusion hurts, because we have come to care.

 

The saltation that the two young paramours move through is a floor crowded with actors knowing their steps with equal grace. Andrew Larimer’s Benvolio glides on his amiable presence, Sam Dudley’s Balthasar is necessarily proper, and Matt Standley is effusive decency as a befuddled Friar Lawrence. The four parents, as played by Jim Wright, Martin Covert, Kate Kuen, and Kyle June Williams, are appropriately chilling political animals. In particular, Wright’s Capulet threatening Juliet is a contained Arctic Cold Front that is one the finest acting moments this year. And in her continued growth as an actress, Natalie Boyd’s Nurse is an amiable schemer who uses an Irish accent to underplay jokes for the sake of giving the audience access.

 

But it is A.J. Allegra’s Mercutio who gives the show its great cabriole. Fusing a fey light touch with a hint of confirmed-bachelor-bitterness, Allegra struts and frets through the early action, never forgetting to drive the story, and finds the laughs in truth rather than bits. His fateful sword fight with Richard Alexander Pomes’ Nogood-Boyo Tybalt is one of the high points of the two-hour evening. Rather than merely a rousing sword fight, Bartelle, Allegra, and, doubling as fight choreographer, Wallace, conceived the rapier exchange as an uproarious comic lazzi that goes terribly wrong. We are having a great time, until blood drops drain the fun from the scene. 

 

As I mentioned, the production is not perfection. There is a measured approach to the world that sometimes works against the show’s youthful energy. Bartelle relies too much on the foyer to do his work, and it betrays him. By trying to fill the room, steps and balconies, he allows the vast space to remove the intimacy from a number of the scenes. Wallace, Standley and Allegra fight the situation with aplomb, but that should not be necessary. The approach distances not only the characters from one another, but also the audience. On more than one occasion, that well earned elegance feels studiously aloof. 

 

More disturbingly, the production elements fall short. On occasion, Long’s lights sacrifice clarity for mood. There were moments when I felt trapped in a block of ice. And the normally reliable Shauna Leone creates a costume design that is disappointingly vague. The clothes lack a point of reference that would have grounded the world and given us access. It is merely eclectic rather than postmodern. It is not a matter of this Romeo and Juliet existing in an instantly recognizable place. It need not do that.  However, it is a case of it not existing in any specific place. The short of it is that the visual world lacks a unified vision. And this failure leads to the particularly galling costume of Morrie McElroy’s Prince. Best described as a make shift St. Ann’s parade outfit, her unidentifiable garb is wildly inappropriate for her powerful performance. McElroy now holds the honor for being the second actress this year to be so good as to overcome an atrocious costume. She deserved better. Because of this lack of unity, all we are left with is the resplendent lobby and a dance metaphor that begin to strain after a time.

 

But the shortcomings did not remove the show from its delicately earned point. All my misgivings were overcome with an admiration for the ambition and collective energy of the evening. In less than a year, The NOLA Project has given us a Midsummer and a Romeo and Juliet that show an understanding that Shakespeare needs to be not only a high-energy endeavor but also framed as an event. I have debated with a number of people in town about whether or not simply presenting good theatre is enough to attract an audience in New Orleans. I fall distinctively on the side that does not believe that will suffice. New Orleanians are always looking for a little lagniappe. Along with their formidable skills as artists, The NOLA Project is offering you that little something extra to compete with the energy in the music clubs and the streets. You need only see the company in the midst of the foyer and dancing through the space to get a sense of what is going down in City Park. It feels like they know they are on to something, rather than just being into themselves. When actors like James Yeargin, Zach Rodgers and Francesca McKenzie take small roles in service of a greater project, I see a group of performers that understands the meaning of the word company. 

 

Other producers of Shakespeare are now on notice.

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