Romeo & Juliet this afternoon at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre Company was good.
It's so tricky to comment on one of the most iconic plays every written, being performed by one of the premier professional Shakespearean Companies in the nation, but to be fair not every time at bat produces a homerun. And when you go to see the Chicago Cubs play (before this season) you don't expect what you do when you go to see the New York Yankees (before this season) and that just how it is--expectations govern your critical eye.
So here's the thing about Shakespeare in general--no dialogue is as demanding as that of Shakespeare, it is dense and filled with innuendo and subtlety. And time has taken it to new and very interesting places merely by the etymological march of language over the past nearly 400 years. To recite Shakespearean dialogue one must have the ability to memorize vast amounts of confusing phrases and then regurgitate them with precision and a fair quantity of affectationous speech. This much will get you through. To understand a modicum of what you are saying and then play upon specific phrases for particular effects for the audience will get you to the next level. To utterly own words and their means and turn them upon themselves so that they sound as modern as spoken word poetry and as natural as an overheard conversation at the grocery store?--That is the pinnacle of what excellent Shakespearean theater is like. At that standard, this was a good production.
The experience and résumés of the cast were sound and some very deep and long. Two members had just performed in productions for last seasons Tennessee Williams centennial: I had seen Chris Genebach (Gregory of the House of Capulet/Friar John) in Everyman's production of "A Street Car Named Desire" in Baltimore where he portrayed Mitch, and Gregory Wooddell (Count Paris) in Roundhouse Theater's production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" where he portrayed Brick. The pacing overall was very good. The set was boring. REALLY, dreadfully, boring.
Did anything stand out? Yes. In fact, the sort of excellent performance that I outlined above was achieved by Jeffery Carlson in the role of Mercutio. He was simply put the highlight of the production. And I would put Judith Lightfoote Clarke as Lady Capulet and Ron Menzel as Friar Laurence in similar, though slightly lesser esteem. Two other roles that deserve mention were the Nurse (Inga Ballard) and Benvolio (Jimmy J.J. Jeter)--both made the most of some key lines, but spent a lot of time just crossing through the others, and Jeter (along with Andrew Veenstra who played Romeo) began the production with so many complimentary hand jesters along side of the dialogue as to creation the impression that they were performing ASL, as well.
Which brings me to the principles. What is Romeo and Juliet without Romeo and Juliet? Here's my take:
Romeo-- Andrew Veenstra, eye candy galore. He got a low energy start with a limited range of hand/arm upper body gestures to illustrate the text of the dialogue at the beginning. (Jimmy J.J. Jeter, as Benvolio, really carried him through these scenes to his credit) Once things got violent--Veenstra rose to the occasion and felt truly authentic. When things got loving...he lost me again. Then there is that desperate scene with the friar and the nurse and he was back on his game... And then he died, and I really didn't care that much.
Juliet-- Ayana Workman, a whole lot of the second tier Shakespearean acting going on. When she found a line she could exploit, she did it with audience approval, but in between there was just a lot of adequately delivered recitations... I expected a lot more based on her résumé. Particularly disappointing was her monologue to open the second act. She was at her best in the whole post party "Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou, Romeo" scene. Visually, she and Andrew formed a compelling montage on stage.
I would honestly not recommend this one to anyone I know. Although I didn't feel cheated.
Ayana Workman as JULIET and Andrew Veenstra at ROMEO
The fight scene (well Choreographed) between Alex Mickiewicz TYBALT and Jeffrey Carlson MERCUTIO
The Capulet's Party with fair ROSALIND tarting it up to ROMEO's dismay