Doing more with less is the through-line of the fifth—and final—season of The Wire, the best TV since the halcyon days of Alf. It's also what the Hunger Artists' production of Romeo and Juliet tries to accomplish.
Director Shannon CM Flynn, in an apparent attempt to make the world's best-known play relevant by reducing it to its barest essentials, hacked a good hour from the bloated text and chose to forego the ridiculous costumes and overwrought sets that usually cloak this tale of hormone-ravaged young lovers, which Shakespeare set in 14th-century Italy.
Flynn's minimalist approach features actors performing in street clothes, chunky Tom Waits tunes as an underscore and a refreshing lack of pretense. Everyone's mask is removed; all we get are actors and Shakespeare's words.
And there's the rub. Because, with only a few exceptions, Flynn's actors can't manage Shakespeare's dialogue—and they look nakedly foolish in the process.
I'm guessing Flynn's intent, in stripping Romeo and Julietof its pomp and pageantry, was to force audience members to newly invest in Shakespeare's language. That's admirable, but the painfully clumsy execution of that vision makes this a very difficult play to sit through without nodding off or musing about how nice it'd be to have a full quiver of poison-tipped arrows.
Rather than placing the focus on Shakespeare's poetry and allowing the viewer's imagination to fill in the gaps, this sloppy, unfocused treatment turns the proceedings into a paid version of a pick-up rehearsal. Romeo wears a Volcom T-shirt. Paris trumpets his admiration for Orson Welles by wearing a shirt emblazoned with Rosebud. And most of the cast evidently chose their outfits by sniffing the pile of clothes resting on the nearest bedroom floor. Doesn't reek? Must be clean.
It's not just that the informal dress draws focus and gets in the way of the story (is the friar really wearing a fedora?). But the uninspired clothing choices also underscore the story's drab telling, which is hamstrung by actors who don't understand what they're saying or are so intimidated by Shakespeare that they either tiptoe through his speeches, afraid of detonating land mines, or, nervous that they may drop a line, cram 95syllablesintoeverysinglebreath.
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In a production in which there is nothing to hide behind except words, actors who lack character and craft might as well have a fat bullseye on their chest. (Good thing there wasn't a crossbow handy.) Only Amber Scott's delightfully earthy nurse, Julian Draven's energetic Mercutio, Kelly Flynn's reasoned Friar Laurence and, most important, Morgan Patterson's impassioned, torrid Juliet consistently rise above the mess of this production. (Thank Buddha for Patterson's cleavage; at least someone involved realizes that, on the surface, this is a play about nothing less than good, old-fashioned cherry-popping.)
What makes this sour production truly astonishing is Flynn's track record: She's one of the best directors to spring from OC soil. She's a founding member of the Hunger Artists, and her vision helped shape the company into one of our premier storefronts. She holds a degree in directing from Yale and, since returning from New Haven, has helmed some of the best local shows in recent memory, including superlative productions of Sweeney Todd and Assassins.
She's got game, and I'm a huge fan. So to see something so uninspiring—especially a play in which passions rage unchecked—is a terrible letdown. Plenty of things can derail a theatrical production: a mutiny among the cast, a director brought on at the last minute or forced to bail out halfway through, a lack of interest at auditions. I'm not sure what went awry here, but I hope the next time a production like this rears its ugly head, I'm in rehab.
Romeo & Juliet at the Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803; www.hungerartists.com or www.myspace.com/thehungerartists. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Feb. 10. $15-$18.