Clowning around can be hard work.
It takes a mastery of specific physical skills, like pratfalls; it requires an impeccable sense of timing; and it takes a willingness to commit to broad strokes that, if not well-executed, can land one face-down in the muck—and not in an intentionally comic way.
In other words, it means having the courage to take big risks, and the skills to make those risks pay off.
This production of Clown Romeo and Juliet, by Beowulf Alley's Late Night Theatre, features a young, sharp-witted group big on courage, and although this is far from a polished piece of theater, there is much to commend.
The Late Night Theatre series is designed "to offer the younger crowd a place to create and explore topics they choose." It's a smart idea; it's important to attract and keep a youthful audience, and provide a showcase for new voices.
Michael Fenlason, who chairs the Late Night committee for Beowulf Alley, says it was natural to link Beowulf Alley's downtown location and the young folks who have a strong presence there on weekend nights. Fenlason launched the group almost two years ago with a production of 3AM: In the Absence of Time and Memory by Jennifer Copland.
"It's a one-man show with many actors," he says cryptically about that first show. This is the kind of thinking that fuels the group's efforts. Here, they take on a colossal challenge by combining clowning and Shakespeare.
The program credits Julie Peterson with this adaptation, which is "further ruined" by Josh Parra and Fenlason. Peterson is a copy editor at the Phoenix New Times, and she's done several adaptations of Shakespeare's work, particularly for educational groups. Fenlason worked with one of her adaptations at The Unlikely Theater in Phoenix and coaxed her to come up with one for Romeo and Juliet.
Cleverly (though imperfectly) conceived by director Parra, this production features a spunky cast which approaches its twisted and tortured material with praiseworthy energy, spirit and good humor. It's a blast of creative gusto, even though it often sputters as it streaks across the stage.
We get the gist of the bard's story of young, ill-fated love—albeit a greatly abbreviated version. The group utilizes some of Shakespeare's dialogue, but they don't hesitate to plug in their own words as well. As one might expect, there's a range of comfort with the delivery of old Will's words within the six-person cast, but the story certainly comes through.
Brian Hanson as Romeo and Teresa Simone (who actually has clown and physical-comedy training) as Juliet are promising talents, and they both handle Shakespeare's language and their clown skills admirably, though not quite expertly. They are certainly a sight to see. Hanson is wafer-thin, and the shape of his booty is the result of bunched-up material which is utilized in what has to be the worst wedgie ever. He must be blinded by love, for his Juliet is truly a nightmare in pink: layers of taffeta and tulle in all shades, a bounteous wig with massive curls done up in long pigtails, striped leggings and pink polka-dotted rubber boots.
Romeo hangs with his buddies Mercutio (Evan Engle) and Benvolio (Ian Mortensen), and Parra's idea is to have them be a three-clown team, a made-over Three Stooges/Marx Brothers sort of thing. It doesn't always work smoothly, but they're so diligent that you can't help but smile at their efforts. Engle is particularly effective with his Harpo-esque character; silent save for his beeping and honking, he strains to communicate with charades-like gesturing, and producing various items from within his well-stocked coat. He is totally committed to these excesses and has the physical control to make them work.
According to Phillip Dixon's biography in the printed program, he has no acting training or experience, and although this is obvious as he plays Tybalt and Friar John, he comes at these characters with earnestness and a winning ingenuousness. Completing this clown clan is Nicole Scott as Nurse, who lends an admirably comic presence, even though her bio claims that she "is no longer with us."
The short scenes present quite a challenge to the director, and although the transitions are well-planned and executed quickly enough, the tale still feels choppy, which makes it hard to work up a satisfying sense of momentum. There are ways to address this, such as using music to tie the scenes together. Having music accompany the scenes would also lend a heightened—and much-needed—sense of movement and could also help punctuate critical moments.
Fun touches abound. Juliet plays with Barbie and Ken dolls in the balcony scene. As the couple marries, her wedding veil keeps coming and coming as she enters from the wing, trailing her for the entire width of the stage; it ends up as a sort of clown-bride burqa. For reasons not totally obvious, there are numerous references to the late Patrick Swayze and Gary Coleman. Of course, there are the requisite cream pies—Romeo's death is from a "poison pie" he buys from a street vendor. And, yes, there are spit takes and even death by seltzer.
Not every gag works, and the demands of great clowning are not quite met. But overall, this is a thoughtful effort by these youngsters.
In the end, one is not inclined to apply superlatives here. Well, maybe one: This is probably the silliest Romeo and Juliet you'll ever see.
And the only one—we hope—to reference Gary Coleman.