Logo taken from https://www.shakespearemiami.com.
By AARON KRAUSE
PINECREST, Fla. — While Florida Shakespeare Theater’s current production of Romeo and Juliet offers strong moments, the production mostly fails to touch – and break – one’s heart.
Any successful mounting of this play requires heartfelt, passionate chemistry between the title characters.
Unfortunately, there’s practically no sense of genuine, pure, innocent and fervent love between Jordon Armstrong and Susannah Morgan Eig as the star-crossed lovers. Consequently, the final scene doesn’t produce heart-wrenching, cathartic tears.
That’s unfortunate; the telling final stage picture that director Colleen Stovall has created is tragic, yet comforting. As we see Juliet resting motionlessly atop the deceased Romeo, we know they’ve died way too young. But, we also realize they will be together for eternity.
The problems with this production, which is playing several South Florida venues free of charge for audiences, begin with the lifeless first act. It feels mechanical and tedious. Moreover, the acoustics within Pinecrest Gardens’ semi-outdoor amphitheater was poor, at least for the reviewed performance. Therefore, it was hard to hear the performers. Indeed, the actors’ voices, especially during Act I, sounded thin.
Frankly, Shakespeare’s beautiful poetry disappeared into the night air or the floor. But acoustics wasn’t the only issue. Acting wise, for instance, Eig fails to lend the necessary youthful longing to the “Wherefore Art Thou Romeo” speech. Therefore, it sounds flat.
Further, Eig’s delivery of the speech in which Juliet urges the “gentle night” to “Give me my Romeo” is devoid of desperation, intense yearning – and poetry.
Also, as Romeo, Armstrong fails to convey much emotion upon witnessing Juliet’s “corpse.”
To be sure, this production features strong moments, but they come in spurts. Perhaps none is stronger than Romeo’s reaction after he learns the Prince has exiled him. Armstrong convincingly shakes and rolls himself almost into a fetal position. In addition, his voice betrays convincing anguish, panic and bitterness.
Another production strength comes when Juliet’s father tries to force her to marry a nobleman. The father (Joe Falocco in a multifaceted, towering portrayal) speaks so harshly while threatening his daughter, calling her rotten names and flinging her to the floor, your protective instincts kick in.
Also, Eig’s Juliet pleads with her dad desperately and with authentic-sounding conviction. You can’t help but feel for the poor girl.
Cast members, representing a mix of veteran and less-experienced performers, realize their characters are multi-faceted, flesh and blood human beings, not just stock characters.
For instance, Eig captures Juliet’s sensitivity, but also makes her assertive. In short, this Juliet is a woman well ahead of her time.
Stovall has set the play in Elizabethan England, a time when women weren’t allowed, among other things, to perform on stage. But one directorial choice, in particular, is an eyebrow raiser. However, it turns Juliet into an assertive character. Moreover, without giving too much way, suffice it to say you may not experience a “balcony scene” quite like this one.
Certainly, we can say this: Any strong, assertive and bold female character is a welcome sight with today’s female-empowering Me Too movement in full swing.
Furthermore, female actors taking on iconic male roles is gaining wider acceptance today.
In this production, a woman playing Mercutio brings different nuances and meanings to certain lines – especially with Mercutio’s primitive views of love.
In the role, Samantha Kaufman makes big acting choices.
The actor presents an unbridled, sarcastic, unapologetically hyper, comical Mercutio. It’s hard to take your eyes off Kaufman as the mercurial Mercutio. The performer might, however, consider adding a tad more nuance.
Another showy role in this play is the overly-talkative nurse. Michele Perkins gives a valiant effort in the role, but is too tentative.
Ditto for Sebastian Pinillos as Friar Laurence and Jeremy Wershoven as Benvolio. The latter speaks too quickly and is barely audible, while Pinillos is too stiff and fails to project a comforting, graceful aura.
As far as cast members’ facility with Shakespeare’s language, they fare well in some respects. In particular, the cast doesn’t stumble over words. Further, they make the Bard’s words their own,communicating the meaning behind them. Still, the poetry too often gets lost. This is due to barely audible voices and rushed line deliveries.
Just as Romeo and Juliet presents complex characters, it’s a layered piece. The play examines many themes and subjects. They include the power of love, the extent to which people will strive to achieve their desires and how people of different generations and attitudes view romance and marriage.
In a way, especially today, this play is a cautionary tale of how hate and divisiveness can destroy people.
With that said, another production shortcoming is the lack of palpable hatred or even tension between the Montagues and Capulets.
An exception is the understated, yet menacing performance Joseph Ross gives as the hateful Tybalt. His eyes are like daggers, conveying a sense of revulsion, cunning and arrogance.
Ross endows Tybalt with a darkness that strongly contrasts with other production elements. Among them is the mostly white structure with staircases and an upstairs railing for the balcony scene that neatly serves as the set.
Trees, foliage, a human-faced moon which reinforces personifications in the text, the natural night sky and a red cloth draped over the set all create a pure, romantic aura.
The period costumes define and differentiate the characters, while the lighting helps establish mood.
Stovall also employs music and sound effects for this purpose, but could use them more.
Florida Shakespeare Theater, formerly Shakespeare Miami, is a professional company now in its 14th season.
Each year, among other programs, it offers a free Shakespeare production to offer audiences a cost-free way to experience Shakespeare’s timeless and timely themes.
Sponsorships, grants and donations help cover costs associated with mounting works that are 400+ years old.
But they’re hardly dated. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet, as well as other Florida Shakespeare Theater productions, might entertain you — and make you discover something new about yourself and the world in which you live.
A wonderful bonus: It’s free!
Florida Shakespeare Theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet will play The Barnacle Historic State Park from Jan. 18-20, Mizner Amphitheater from Jan. 25-27 and ArtsPark Amphitheater on Feb. 1 and 2. For details, visit https://www.shakespearemiami.com.