Friday, August 6, 2010

Late Friday Afternoon in Prospect Park: EBE Ensemble presents "Romeo & Juliet" at Shakespeare in the Pagoda

Once again this afternoon, we went to Prospect Park to see Shakespeare. This is the final weekend of Shakespeare in the Pagoda, a presentation of EBE Ensemble, whose fine Julius Caesar we saw last Saturday.

At 4 p.m. today we got to see the company's equally well-done Romeo & Juliet (they use the ampersand so we are too), a high-energy production directed by Dev Bondarin featuring most of the excellent actors we saw as ancient Romans a week ago.

We've finally learned how to get to the Music Pagoda without getting lost, at least once we were at the easier-to-find Oriental Pavilion, where we saw Brave New World Repertory's As You Like It yesterday: from there, go under the arch, over the bridge and around.

EBE Ensemble has been doing Romeo & Juliet and Julius Caesar twice most of these weekend days (the final performances are on Saturday) at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and we're astounded at the energy and endurance of the actors as well as their skill.

Since most of the actors here except the young lovers take multiple parts, we've now seen some of them in three or four roles, so it's impressive to see their range. It's also heartening to see what the company can do with the bare-bones set of the Music Pagoda, which is a beautiful (if neglected) venue but it has some limitations, which EBE Ensemble and the directors of these productions have found a way to use to turn into strengths. The music here, with cellist Frederick Alden Terry and percussionist Jonathan Churchill, was a big help, too.

This was a contemporary dress production, but low-key and not aggressively 21st century like the more stripped-down Romeo and Juliet we saw last summer by the Curious Frog Theatre Company at the Litchfield Villa on the other side of Prospect Park. (A nice touch by wardrobe supervisor Kelsie Cooper today was to very subtly color-coordinate the Montagues and Capulets early on.)

Since that production also featured Elizabeth Spano as Juliet, it was interesting to see her deeper and less impatient interpretation of the role here. This Juliet seems more mature, more thoughtful and also a bit more cautious and stoic than her earlier performance. This Juliet is a little bit less daring and physical, not delicate but with an emotional fragility to balance the character's determined strength.

We've now seen Montgomery Sutton (EBE Ensemble's executive director) in several roles, and he has a terrific stage presence. Perhaps because here he's often in front of the raised stage of the pagoda while Juliet is, until the play's final scenes, confined to the more distant reaches of the upper "stage," the role of Romeo becomes more intimate with the audience and more central to the story than the slightly ethereal Juliet.

Sutton's Romeo seems almost thoughtful even in his impetuousness. That the young characters in the play - except for Benvolio (Joshua Luria, in an impressive performance that somehow makes his character the moral center of the Veronese universe, even more so than the Prince) - act so rashly in typically adolescent behavior patterns drives the tragedy. Yet here you feel that Romeo is so close to controlling the events by making better decisions (in a year or so he'd handle everything differently) that it makes the play's awful progress that much more painful.

EBE Ensemble artistic director Eric Alba, so fine as Brutus in Julius Caeasar, makes lightning-fast changes here from the blithely incompetent servant Peter (along with Camille Mazurek's dithery Nurse, he gets most of the laughs) to the scariest Tybalt we've ever seen: as Tybalt, he seems slightly psycho to us, incapable of being reasoned with despite the impression that you have that Tybalt is capable of generosity and kindness.

The other principals from Julius Caeasar also gave remarkably thoughtful performances here. Camille Mazurek was particularly fine as the Nurse, at turns petulant, deeply empathetic, self-pitying, histrionic and good-hearted. This Nurse seems to know she was destined for better things and chafes in the limited role society has assigned her. We didn't realize at first that Mazurek was also the actress playing Lady Montague, so different are the two women; Lady Montague here is utterly helpless, someone (you suspect) crippled by depression, and so her ultimate fate comes as a horror but not a shock. This is an accomplished dual performance.

Nick Reinhardt made a wonder of Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, essentially undercutting all the passions of the other characters that dominate the drama. For us, it was the part of the text, even more than the excellent well-known romantic monologues and dialogues of the two protagonists, that highlighted the beauty of Shakespeare's language, even if you think Mercutio is high on something during it. Reinhardt also made an interestingly distracted Prince, someone who could be a lot more competent if only he weren't rushing to check off the next item on his to-do list.

Len Rella, whose Cassius was so interesting, here embodies the dysfunctionality of Veronese society in his performance of Capulet. He and Montague (Steve Viola) may preside over two households "both alike in dignity" - which is to say they have very little of it. Capulet's intrinsic kindness is thwarted again and again by his being so over his head as the head of this weird family. Continually exasperated, Capulet seems to envy the life of Friar Lawrence (also Steve Viola) every time they meet, and one suspects this man would be better off as a priest - as well as more competent than Friar Lawrence.

Viola, too, in his dual roles as Friar Lawrence and Montague, adds to the sense that everyone in Verona, from the Prince down to the servants, is just a little out of their league, that the Peter Principle was at work here and every character except the star-crossed lovers and Benvolio has risen to a role just beyond their ability to function effectively. At one point at the end of the play, Viola has to change in like three seconds between the Friar and Montague, and it's a remarkable transformation.

Ugo Chukwu gives a good performance as Balthasar, but his Paris is what's interesting. The actor manages to portray Paris as someone who has become so accustomed to playing a role that he's almost shocked when he drops his mask and his real, much more genuine, self comes through. His finest moment is when he's so overjoyed by the news that Juliet will marry him that he impulsively hugs a discombobulated Capulet and betrays this wide boyish exuberant grin, a fleeting view of a less artificial, better self that he otherwise manages to hide effectively.

While Sutton and Spano, both attractively winning and incredibly sympathetic as Romeo and Juliet, dominate the story, this production made us see how victimized they are by everyone around them, including the older characters who attempt to help them.

Judy Alvarez's Lady Capulet is no help, but she epitomizes the futility of attempting to get beyond one's assigned role. She's both narrow-minded and single-minded, a fiercely protective mother and aunt who nevertheless can't move beyond self-interest and pretension.

We've seen a lot of Romeo and Juliets, but this one is the only one that left us feeling so angry at the characters', well, stupidity. Director Dev Bondarin, along with the performers, managed to convey this, along with the expected romantic passions, in nearly every scene.

We admired both plays in Shakespeare in the Pagoda - the way the ensemble works together is inspiring - and so we gave another contribution, larger this time, at the end, hoping they can come back next summer.

No comments: