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CSUN's 'Romeo and Juliet' a Mismatch of Time and Place

The Shakespearean tragedy, set in 20th century America, combines original dialogue and a '50s look.

Suppose you were to set Romeo and Juliet in America in about 1959. If you're lucky enough to get Leonard Bernstein to compose, Stephen Sondheim to write the lyrics and Arthur Laurent  to write the book, you'd have West Side Story, one of the greatest musicals of all time.

But now suppose you didn't want to take it that far. You wanted to use the actual words Shakespeare wrote and the characters he created. But you wanted them to dress  as they did a half century ago and duel with 20th century objects and start and end scenes with vintage rock songs. What then?

Then, you'd have the play that opened Friday night at CSUN's Experimental Theatre, a dramatic mishmosh that deserves credit for thinking outside the box but falls short conceptually as well as in the execution.

Without director notes, one can only guess at what director and editor Shad Willingham had in mind by adapting the play to a semi-contemporary time. My guess is that he wanted to show the universality of the story, the idea that times may change but human nature is more or less constant through time and place.

But if the goal was to show that the Bard is just as brilliant if his characters delivered their lines after time traveling, the production provides only the most tepid evidence. From the opening fight scene, in which Capulets and Montagues rumble with tennis rackets and garden implements, to the waning moments, when Mr. Capulet of 1959 orders daughter Juliet to a hasty wedding with jilted lover Paris, it all seems incongruous and dangerously close to parody.

Adaptations have to make sense within their own context. Romeo and Juliet, in the original, has enough historical believability so as not to detract from Shakespeare's observations about the human condition and the nature of love and lovers. The same is true of West Side Story.

However, this version, with its Elizabethan language and its American Bandstand interludes, lacks a ring of authenticity. Elements fight each other, such as Melissa Ficociello's classical set design and the contemporary costumes by Daniel Mahler.

Yes, there is the pleasure of recognizing  Shakespearean themes encapsulated in early rock songs. Hats off to Willingham for his smart selections, including starting the play with Why Do Fools Fall In Love?, ending it with Since I Don't Have You and filling it with such tunes as Earth Angel and A Teenager In Love.  The musical punctuation, clever though it may be, is still insufficient to overcome the jarring transition of time and place.

Nor did it help that, in some instances, actors weren't always up to the special demands of Shakespearean drama.

Famous phrases and soliloquies notwithstanding, contemporary audiences are challenged by Shakespeare's dialogue. To reach audiences, the lines can't simply be said; they must be sold.

Several cast members, through their inflections and timing, conveyed the meaning  of Shakespeare's words. Among those to be praised are Burklee Woods, who played Romeo's friend, Mercutio; as well as Tamee Seidling as Juliet's nurse, and Michelle Beard as Juliet's mother.

Too often, Will Potter, who played Romeo, seemed more interested in getting through the dialogue than interpreting it for the audience. Megan Berndt, who played Juliet, fared better in that department but struggled at times with projection. Others in the cast rattled off lines in frustrating monotones.

Some of it may be opening night jitters before a sold-out house. However, even the most polished performances won't be able to overcome the conceptual flaws.

Additional performances are scheduled at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 16, 20, 21, 22 and 23 and at 2 p.m. on Feb. 17 and 24. For tickets, call 818-677-2488.

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