Review: IRT’s Rehashed Romeo and Juliet

Last Friday evening I attended the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s latest main stage offering, Romeo and Juliet, in Indianapolis downtown. Upon hearing the play’s concept of casting the Capulets as African American and the Montagues as Caucasian, I was extremely skeptical about the success of such a tired concept. When West Side Story pitted a Puerto Rican gang against a white one, it made the story of Romeo and Juliet accessible to all of America. How can an adaptation on IRT’s stage successfully reinvent an idea which has been seen world wide? I reprimanded myself for immediately taking such a narrow view, looking to the IRT’s recent history of producing stunning and moving work (The Heavens are Hung in Black and Love Letters).

In fact, the IRT made no effort to hide the fact that its concept was not a far cry from the popular 1950’s musical version of Shakespeare’s classic. Janet Allen mentions West Side Story by name in her always lovely program notes from the Artistic Director. After reading what Allen had to say about the IRT’s reasons for presenting Romeo and Juliet in such an obviously done concept, I was able to totally set aside any preconceived notions about the show.

Allen explains that as this year’s production of Romeo and Juliet marks its fourth incarnation at the IRT. The Indianapolis theatre is attempting to bring Shakespeare to both adult and student audiences alike. Past versions of this popular play at the IRT have been geared toward a mainly student audience. She goes on to explain, “We set out, in developing the conceptual approach of the production (the “frame”), by considering the perspectives of these two important audience groups and intersecting those perspectives with the place in which we will produce the play – that is, a large and diverse Midwestern city.” The IRT takes the stance that racial issues are on par as the most divisive line faced in America. Choosing to focus their production of Romeo and Juliet on this is an attempt to make the production uniquely American.

Walking into the IRT’s main stage theatre space immediately transports one back to post World War II America. The playing space, carved with multiple levels and a clunker car straight from the time period, creates a visual feast for your eyes. A painted replica of a billboard sporting the slogan, “World’s Highest Standard of Living: There’s no way like the American Way” ripped from a controversial photo in a 1937 Life magazine, offers an intelligent backdrop for the show. In the photo (not the IRT’s replication), African American flood victims line up in front of the billboard waiting for relief from the Red Cross. It harkens to the tragedy of Katrina, bringing the issues faced by African Americans in the 1940s to light through the lens of today’s world. As the actors filled the stage with beautiful vintage clothes, I found myself looking forward to the unfolding events of the play (rather than cringing at the tired setting). I agreed that a Romeo and Juliet set in post World War II America and divided along racial lines had the possibility of being relevant to Indianapolis society today.

Unfortunately, my high hopes took an extreme nose dive as the play progressed, lasting more than three hours, and largely failing to follow through on the concept. With only two stand out performances from supporting characters, it seemed to me that someone had forgotten to tell the actors that “Gee, this play has a concept.” Ryan Artzberger, as Mercurtio, and Karen Aldridge, as the Nurse, were the only two actors that made real choices pertaining to the elaborate concept dreamed up by the director (Tim Ocell) and the artistic staff of the IRT.

Ryan Artzberger created Mercutio as an extremely troubled veteran of the war. As the only member of the Montague camp to express any overt racism, Artzberger’s Mercutio spearheaded the establishment of racism in the era (a lofty task for only one member of the cast). Making strong choices throughout, Artzberger’s character becomes one that you love to hate. His performance is a departure from his role of the gentle poet Whitman in The Heavens are Hung in Black, proving Artzberger’s command of the stage and shape shifting talents.

Karen Aldridge may be one of the most talented actresses the IRT has seen on its stage all season. As Juliet’s Nurse, she gives a fierce performance, demonstrating both a handle on comedy as the at times “clownish” nurse and depth of performance when the plot turns dark. She puts those around her to shame, attracting your eye from the moment she walks on stage. Making clear choices rooted in the concept, Aldridge’s Nurse made Shakespeare’s language sound modern. Her command of speech and stage makes for an enigmatic and entertaining performance throughout the play. The most electrifying scene in the the IRT’s  version of Romeo and Juliet came when these two powerhouse actors (in supporting roles) briefly encountered each other.

However, these two performances were not enough to save the dreadfulness that was Claire Aubon Fort’s Juliet. In the ingenue role, Fort demonstrates only a periphery understanding of the words she speaks throughout. Her choices are basic. Her performance falls flat as she gives a typical performance of Juliet, that does not seem to mesh with the overarching concept. It is difficult to sit through any play (no less one that runs three hours) watching the female lead give a blasé performance. Fort’s talent seems matched with that of a college theatre student attempting a first time performance of Shakespeare. As it came time for her to drink the all important sleeping potion, the audience gallery surrounding me seemed to egg her on through yawns and coughs to “drink the damn thing.”

The performance given by her Romeo (Erik Hellman) was both sweet and informed, though it did little to save the play from the embarrassment of such a wretched star. Even the supporting cast, who gave intelligent and entertaining though not stellar performances, could not do enough to save this production of Romeo and Juliet. It is unfair to ask a cast of supporting characters to pick up such lost slack. Even Artzberger and Aldridge saving graces could not counteract such missteps from Juliet.

In addition to a poor leading lady, the IRT’s performance suffered from its length alone. Mounting Shakespeare in its entirety presents a number of problems. A six week rehearsal process always sounds longer than it is, especially when dealing with Shakespeare. Though my suspicions are unconfirmed, it seems possible that in rehearsing a three hour, show the director simply ran out of time. Not able to devote enough time to every part of the play, certain life or death artistic battles fell to the wayside. I understand that the IRT is attempting to make Shakespeare for both students and adults, but a three hour production that fails to move will alienate both audience groups.

With two other productions in the Circle City offering a glimpse into this same time period (The Housewives of Mannheim at the Phoenix Theatre and Bus Stop at Indianapolis Civic Theatre) it seems a safe bet to save your money on this one. I suggest using your Indianapolis entertainment budget on seeing the other two 1940s plays. For additional information about the IRT’s production of Romeo and Juliet, visit their website.

See our Indianapolis restaurant and Indianapolis bar listings to make your evening out in Indianapolis downtown complete. Going on now through February 6, 2010 is Devour Downtown, where delicious Indy restaurants offer great deals. Stay tuned to Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis.

Romeo and Juliet
Now through February 27, 2010

Indiana Repertory Theatre
140 W Washington St
Indianapolis, IN 46204

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