Saturday, April 12, 2014

REVIEW: A Steampunk "Romeo and Juliet" at Magenta Theater Deft and Punk

I must admit upfront that I'm not a huge Shakespeare fan. Oh, I appreciate the artistry of his work, and really do enjoy his comedies from time to time, but (let's face it) it's old stuff. The archaic language just doesn't really connect well with modern audiences.

And then there's the Bard Snobs; (like the Mac Snobs of the computer world) they think they're really something special. Sort of the elite who like to flaunt their sophistication. I'm more of a pop culture guy.

None-the-less, I do like a good production of the Master's work from time to time. I like to see what people do with it and I have seen some amazing work that, despite the language barrier, managed to connect with the audience through exceptional acting and directing.

I came in expecting this kind of translation and direction from the Magenta production of "Romeo and Juliet" directed by David Roberts, framed in (get this) a "steampunk" setting. Yes, I was intrigued.

Robbin Goss as Romeo (L) and Hannah Mock
as Juliet are watched by Eli Swihart (Tybalt).

We all know the story--it's one of the most famous tales of all time: Boy meets girl, they fall in love, their families hate each other and forbid their love, they rebel, they die. Yeah, I know, the ending is a bit rough. It's not your Disney "happily-ever-after" faerie tale. Not my kind of ending, but, hey, I HAD to see this--David Roberts was directing! (Even if Magenta no longer gives review comps. Yes, I paid for my ticket.)

What Light in Yonder Window Breaks?

You see, I've seen Roberts' direction before. He did an absolutely amazing job with "Wait Until Dark" at the Love Street Playhouse. He even handled the Bard's work well in "Much Ado About Nothing" when he performed (as Benedict) for his own Vancouver OnStage production (his wife Stephanie directing) some years ago. I think he is a very good director.

He is also responsible for the adaption--a two hour truncation of the three and a half hour play. Using the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film as a framework, Roberts added back in what he thought was needed for exposition in the play. Nothing was really lost in the trim. And his steampunk setting was an innovative and inspired move as well.

The acting was generally good, but uneven across the board. I enjoyed all the roles. Most were played straight, a couple (one bit part and one prominent role) seemed a little too much on the lighter side. The leads--Robbin Goss (Romeo) and Hannah Mock (Juliet) were exceptionally strong, as were David Bower (Friar Laurence ) and Matt Newport (Benvolio ) who seemed the best at playing Shakespeare. Beth VanBuecken (Mercutio) was also good--a very strong performer (though, perhaps, better stylized for a musical).

Goss could have played a bit more of his emotion on his face in the intimate theater, but his physicality and voice were near perfect. Mock, trained by MPAA and OCT, gave a delightful performance; her Juliet was part feminist, part rebel teen, part innocence, part bravado--all expressed well through body language, voice and facial expression.

Romeo and Tybalt duel in one of the plays many fights.

A Rose by Any Other Name

And speaking of language, more importantly the interpretation--the translation--came off really well. Roberts "gets" Shakespeare and is able to relate the meanings to his cast and knows how to have them express the archaic terms and subtle subtexts to the audience. These were often achieved via a look or action.

The poetry was carefully delivered while not sounding overly foreign to the modern ear. Certainly a stunning achievement in and of itself.

The blocking (on the small stage and with a large cast) was also interesting and artful. The fight scenes or violence design (choreographed by David Gregory Bareford) were really good.

And speaking of choreography (there is a ballroom scene) I was particularly blown away by the work of Suzanne Vannatter. It's hard to put a label on it. Part Victorian, part Medieval, part folk to a Techno track. Suffice it to say that it worked very well. And I really liked how she isolated and highlighted Romeo and Juliet--an almost cinematographic effect.

Technically the show was a marvel. Lighting (by Reba Hoffman and Brenda McGinnis) was impressive. The costumes (by Bethie Duvall) were creative, eclectic and interesting. Especially delightful, interesting (and also eclectic) was the soundscape. The sound design (by Tim Klein) was nicely done--very creative. But, I must say, it is the music that is the star of the show. Again eclectic, but decidedly modern. Pop, techno, symphonic, etc. Yes, this brave approach really worked. It was so complex it took three "Music Curators" (Tim Klein, David Roberts and Eli Swihart) to put it together. And each number, in it's place, was ideal.

Most impressive of all was the set designed by David Roberts and implemented by Melinda Leuthold and Michele Glover. Innovative and detailed--filled with gears, gadgets, and gauges; pipes, valves, truss, and brick--the decidedly steampunk scenery, painted in metallic copper and iron, was a living piece of the action (as much an actor as any human). Very awesome!

The scene changes, laden with creative effects, were mechanical and visually interesting. Video was used creatively as well. All in all a delightful evening.

Wherefore Art Thou?

I highly recommend this production for Shakespeare aficionados and neophytes alike. It would be a great introduction to the Master's work--enjoyable and educational. I don't recommend it for those under ten years of age due to some thematic elements (violence, suicide) and the "sex scene" (played suggestively in shadow on video). If you go please tell them you saw our review.

The classic play is being presented by Magenta Theater, 606 Main St., Vancouver, Wash. Show dates and times are: April 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25 at 7:30 p.m.; April 19 and 26 at 2 p.m. Seats are $13-16. For tickets go to click here.

For another review of the play and more wonderful production photographs click here.

Review by Gregory E. Zschomler
Photographs provided.

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