Triumphant Tragedy

Arizona Repertory's 'Romeo and Juliet' serves the classic well

Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet wastes no time delivering a visceral punch through its techno music, futuristic industrial stage, murky lighting and punk-biker chic. With single-minded focus, director Brent Gibbs underscores the evitable and impersonal human tragedies precipitated by adolescent hormones and unchecked passion. From the dimming of the lights, the ominous tone is unrelenting, driving this well-honed performance to its bitter end.

Gibbs' film credentials are evident in his sensory allusions to A Clockwork Orange, 1984, West Side Story and various post-apocalyptic films. But the sound, sets and design are the creative work of his talented backstage crew.

Though ostensibly set in the mean streets of a coal-mining, Victorian-era Verona, divided by a factional rivalry between industrial barons Capulet and Montague, this production features a physicality that endows the youthful play with appeal to a cinema-jaded audience. It brings out the play's timelessness, too; brief references to the double moral standard, patriarchy and the stylized tango of the ball could also be consistent with either a Renaissance society or robotic future.

Courtland Jones' boarded backdrop with its Mondrian-like latticed panels is dominated by a circular screen from which the disembodied mouth of Big Brother, the virtual Prince of Verona, narrates. Established in the Prologue, it is a ubiquitous, disquieting presence. Three giant metal-frame arches with moving cogs and catwalks along the top wheel seamlessly into various configurations to evoke the Montague/Capulet mines; the Capulet garden and Juliet's balcony; Friar Lawrence's cell, complete with rose window; Juliet's bedroom; and the catacombs behind the locked grate of the Capulet tomb.

What passes for comic relief in traditional performances has become the dark humor of class struggle and futility. Taking a literal cue from Shakespearean metaphor, a real "collier" in the first scene is caught pissing in the mineshaft with his "naked weapon out" when Montague partisans enter. Upper-class phallic lewdness is perfected in Matthew Bowdren's volatile Mercutio, a far cry from his cool Hamlet in Live Theatre Workshop's Etcetera series this season. His body language is familiar jock-star antic, and his Queen Mab speech comes off less smart-ass and more natural than the sometimes tedious and affected puns delivered by professional actors.

Tim McKiernan's Romeo is the romantic IRA-style leader, who has taken pains to overcome his upper-class background. Patrick Holt's costume design reinforces the anti-establishment mystique of the young Montague and Capulet gangs. They roam Verona's streets clad in tattoos and black leather with metal accessories--studded belts and wrist bands, dangling pocket chains, naked vests and paramilitary boots. Victorian walking sticks make convenient phalluses.

Haircuts also project a counter-culture image, from Tybalt's full-blown Mohawk to Romeo's and Benvolio's ultra-short cuts. Instead of tonsure, Friar Lawrence sports a shaved head and arm tattoos, visible when caught with his cassock off. Juliet's simple ponytail would be tame if it weren't for its mod cut when loosely draped.

Adults wear styles more closely resembling Victorian conservatism, but Lady Capulet's exposed bustle, Capulet's leather carriage coat, Lady Montague's frilly leather apron and the nurse's vinyl corset come from an alternate reality.

No matter how minor the role, each actor gives a credible and thoughtful performance that refreshes the material without shocking. The consistently high quality of this production shows dedication and teamwork, an ensemble performance belying the age and experience of the cast and crew. For undergraduates, however, they have chalked up a lot of time on the boards. Especially notable, besides the male leads, are Jeff Haffner's complex Friar Lawrence, Karole Spangler's appealingly bawdy and intelligent Nurse, Julia Graham's realistically human Lady Capulet, Stefanie Brown's convincing simulated death as Juliet, and the entertaining minor characters played by Lauren Stinson, Laine Peterson and Charlotte Bernhardt.

Overall, this cast reads Shakespeare's language with understandable contemporary intonation and rhythm. The only minor infelicity is the repeated three-syllable pronunciation of "banished," most of which occurs in Juliet's lines and delicate voice, already too lyrical for such a somber production. A free-verse reading would be preferable. Retaining the feminine line end is just too arcane for modern sensibilities!

Freshness, energy and authenticity can generally be relied on from ART productions, and this is a typically good one.

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