Thursday, May 5, 2011

Spring Awakenings: TSC's excellent Romeo & Juliet closes at the Dixon this weekend

Posted By on Thu, May 5, 2011 at 10:50 AM

Romeo (Wolfe Coleman) and Juliet (Carey Elise) during the outdoor Capulet tomb in the Dixon Gardens south woods; Tennessee Shakespeare Companys production of ROMEO AND JULIET directed by Stephanie Shine.  Photo: Joey Miller.
  • Romeo (Wolfe Coleman) and Juliet (Carey Elise) during the outdoor Capulet tomb in the Dixon Gardens' south woods; Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of ROMEO AND JULIET directed by Stephanie Shine. Photo: Joey Miller.
Tennessee Shakespeare Company's environmental take on Romeo & Juliet in the Dixon Gardens is a bit gimmicky and funny hats abound. It's also gorgeous, one of the most consistently entertaining and genuinely moving interpretations of Shakespeare's well-loved, love story I've seen. And, at this point, I've seen a lot of them. I strongly recommend visiting the Dixon Gardens before the show closes on May 8. Take your kids. Tell a friend. Tell an enemy you want to flip. It's really the perfect way to celebrate the arrival of Spring.

I've had mixed emotions about some of TSC's previous shows, mostly related to a declamatory style of performance that always seemed too cold and too big for the room. But in the great outdoors oversized acting can seem less oversized, and the actors assembled for this R&J are loose, and speak the language like visitors from another time.

There's no right way to perform Shakespeare but there are many wrong ways to do it and Memphians have been treated to more than their fair share of wrongheaded R&Js in recent years. A few seasons back Germantown Community Theatre staged a brooding version so dark and somber with so much of the play's emphasis on the secondary characters, it became almost unrecognizable. Not to be outdone, Playhouse on the Square's subsequent, less interesting take on the tragedy, featured a wheelchair-bound Juliet(the actor was perfectly ambulatory). Loving a disabled person, we were told, was supposed to make the love even more taboo.

Whatever.

Romeo & Juliet isn't a riddle that needs to be solved, and although it offers many meditation-worthy truths, the story can accurately be summarized in a very few words: It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

TSC's R&J is as unfussy as a piece of theater can be. The humor—and there is so much of it—isn't the result of some imposed cleverness, it's born of actors clearly having a great time with material they know very well. It's a comfort to see character actors in the title roles instead of pretty young things able to speak the words prettily. Not to say that Wolfe Coleman and Carey Elise don't make a handsome couple. But Elise's Juliet, with her syllogisms and curious, independent nature is more likely to be voted Verona High's class clown than prom queen. Coleman's tussle-haired Romeo is a clumsy goofball whose facility with a sonnet, and the sword, improves with practice.

When Romeo—playing the part of a peeping Tom, stalking his crush from below— calls out to Juliet on her balcony Elise shrieks and jumps like someone who's just been goosed. She's not so much frightened as startled. The audience roars with the recognition of something real, and TSC's R&J is heavily seasoned with these kinds of moments.

Matthew Cruse's drag take on the nurse is much more than a big-bottomed sight gag, Michael Khanlarian's Capulet is nuanced and in need of some anger management, Darius Wallace makes Friar Lawrence a complex clergyman and Slade Kyle's wisecracking Mercutio vibrates with life. This is truly an ensemble show, underscored by a relatively small cast's sharing of the play's narrative passages.

The dancing and swordplay might be best described as too much of a good thing. And something about the progressive nature of the play's final act—where the audience follows the actors through the gardens—is a little too much like visiting a haunted forest attraction. The payoff, however, is worth the gimmicky indulgence. Juliet's tomb scene, set in the shadow of Venus's fountain in the southeast part of the garden — is so visually satisfying I'm not even sure I heard what the actors were saying. Didn't have to.

Showtime is 7 p.m. For more information click here.

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