Fast Tragedy

LTW's entertaining 'Romeo' has been trimmed, but the important stuff remains

Please, Shakespeare purists, don't be put off by Live Theatre Workshop's description of its late-night version of Romeo and Juliet.

The company's Etcetera series promises "a fast-paced interpretation adapted from the original to make it accessible yet still vital ... (an) adaptation that carefully balances a modern approach while remaining faithful to the original style of this classic tragedy." Well, that could mean almost anything, including dumbing down the Bard. Not so in this case. I'm not sure about fidelity to the "original style," but LTW's highly condensed Ro and Ju tells the core story swiftly, flashing some illuminating moments along the way.

Almost everything not directly related to the interaction of the two young lovers gets stripped out of this 85-minute version. We still have Mercutio's famous Queen Mab bit, a short opening fight to establish the inter-family feud, and a modicum of comic relief from Juliet's Nurse. But all the stuff with Romeo's buddies is gone; the character of Paris is erased; the Friar Laurence material is trimmed; and much else falls away as easily as Juliet's negligee (not that we see that on stage). If hardly anything in this paragraph means anything to you, then you're probably exactly the sort of person who should see this streamlined production; you'll get solid Shakespeare without the extras that confuse neophytes.

Of course, you'll miss the richness of the full play, but there are compensations. First, there's Jeremy Thompson. It's usually a bad idea for an actor to direct himself--something in every scene he's in usually falls by the wayside--but Thompson pulls off the trick neatly, mainly by playing a character who has just a few big scenes and gets killed halfway through. Thompson is Mercutio, Romeo's cousin and best friend, full of joie de vivre but dangerously pugilistic in the vicinity of his family's enemies. Thompson's natural sweetness makes almost any character he plays immediately engaging, but he can also find a darker side within him that gives Mercutio his necessary edge. His Queen Mab speech, in which Mercutio sings the praises of what is essentially the Sandman, is the finest thing in this production. Thompson is always in motion, yet fully focused, and however carefree he may seem, it's clear that he also suffers from nightmares.

One of Thompson's most intriguing ideas in this adaptation was casting a woman, Danielle Dryer, as Mercutio's nemesis, Tybalt. This does not compromise the character at all, at least not in this production's nonspecific time setting. Dryer's Tybalt remains athletic, powerful and perpetually pissed off, yet she's not devoured by her own macho bluster. She's fully believable as Mercutio's adversary in the fight scenes.

In Shakespeare's time, the cross-dressing would have been done by males; the female characters were played by men and boys. This production's Juliet is the unmistakably female Maggie Shaeffer. She does, at least, look Juliet's age--14--from the neck up, and her performance is effectively girlish. At times she's exceptionally good, but at other times there's something a little unsettled about her, as if she hasn't lived with the character quite long enough. Still, she's sufficiently effective as we speed through the story, and she works well with her Romeo, the youthful, ardent, yet controlled Chad Ramsey.

Like Shaeffer, Bebe Fischer as the Nurse has both off and on moments, but she's mostly on. I do think Thompson errs in making her sexual double entendres so blatant and physicalized, but that may well be what the audience expected back at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The supporting cast does well--Steve McKee as the Chorus who pulls the story together, Tony Eckstat as Friar Laurence and especially Matthew Copley as the Prince.

This version does not deliver the whole story, but for a play that starts at 10:30 p.m., wrapping up by midnight is certainly to be commended. It's much more than a simplified, rapid-cutting MTV reduction of the story; the essential Shakespeare remains.

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