By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
With Romeo and Juliet, the problem is this: Cast seasoned actors who look a little too old for the title roles or use young ones who can pass as teenagers (Juliet's barely 14 in the play) but might be too green to wrap their heads around the characters' intense emotional shifts. The new Trinity Shakespeare Festival in Fort Worth, opening their first summer season with this play and Twelfth Night, has, with mixed results, favored youth over experience.
Choosing fresh faces over finer actors is a double-edged sword. Kelsey Milbourn, a sophomore at Texas Christian University (a producing partner with Trinity Shakespeare), and Daniel Fredrick, a recent TCU grad, look just about right as the teen lovers. Milbourn has a sweet, kittenish face and flowing chestnut hair. Fredrick is tall and pin-thin, with the gangly limbs of a boy in his last spurt of growth before manhood. They're a cute couple for sure, but not for a second are they convincing as kids who fall in love in an instant and are willing to die together rather than live apart.
More than smooth complexions or even the ability to sell those sappy balcony speeches as spontaneous Elizabethan text messages, what brings magic to any Romeo and Juliet—and what's missing in this one—is chemistry. Milbourn and Fredrick just don't generate enough sexy sizzle in a play rich with allusions to fire, lightning and the sun. They hold back, as some young actors are prone to do, instead of throwing themselves headlong into the passionate stuff.
Milbourn does understand the strong-willed side of Juliet, defying her parents' order that she agree to an arranged marriage with a rich older man, Count Paris (Desmond Ellington). But she doesn't connect with the blushes of lust in the character, and she turns grating and histrionic in the scene with her nurse (Emily Gray) when she hears that Romeo has been banished for killing Capulet cousin Tybalt (Jeffrey Schmidt).
Fredrick is beset with diction and movement problems, plus an unfortunate habit of doing what actors call "indicating." When he says "heart," he clutches his chest; when he says "stars," he points at the ceiling. Afraid of standing still and letting the poetry do its work, the actor bounces up and down on his toes and windmills his arms so wildly the first row catches the breeze.
Against weak leads, it's up to the supporting cast to carry the play, and in this production, directed by Alexander Burns, the older professionals do their jobs so well that lots of new insights are revealed into Romeo and Juliet's large circle of friends, relatives and caretakers. As Juliet's nurse, Dallas actress Emily Gray becomes the touchstone for every scene she's in. Gray has dirtied her teeth, glued on some moles and hunched her back, creating an image of a much older, careworn woman. Cracking rude jokes about Juliet's virginity, making self-deprecating cracks in a voice that could curdle cream, Gray's nurse is the comic center of a play that unfolds as a fairly lively comedy for three acts, before the men start stabbing each other in the street and Juliet fakes her own death.
The parents are especially good in this Romeo and Juliet. David Coffee, a veteran of four decades of Shakespeare productions, lends a booming voice and patrician swagger to the role of Capulet. When he discovers the lifeless (or so he thinks) Juliet and falls to pieces, it's intense and moving.
As Juliet's mother, Trisha Miller Smith carries a knot of tension in her midsection, as if remembering the anguish and joy of childbirth as she loses her daughter twice in the same day. The role of Romeo's father, Lord Montague, takes on more heft as played by handsome Brent Alford, a frequent star at Theatre Three. He has the unenviable task of stepping on late in the proceedings, after Romeo and Juliet have killed themselves, to announce that Romeo's mother has died of grief too. When William Shakespeare started killing off characters, he didn't know when to stop. Half a dozen bite the dust in this one.
Among the other young members of the cast, Andrew Milbourn brings the humpy, brooding heat and polished vocal technique to the part of doomed pal Mercutio that Romeo needs. Milbourn could be a dynamite Romeo—in a production not using his sister Kelsey as Juliet.
The unbalanced casting is the only major flaw in Trinity Shakespeare's work on this play. In every other area, this company delivers big on the wow factor. Accustomed to low-budget/no-budget shows, seeing the elegance of the costumes and scenery in this Romeo and Juliet produces a kind of sensory overload. Brian Clinnin designed both. His costumes, some rented, many made from scratch, are as exquisitely detailed and lavishly layered as those in Zeffirelli's 1968 film. Done in rich fabrics in muted tones of claret, hunter green and golden browns, with leather boots and gloves as accents, the clothes are framed perfectly by scenery that suggests a wide stone piazza divided by a thin trench that fills ominously with blood when the swords have made "worms' meat" of Mercutio and Tybalt. Lighting by Michael Skinner and thunderstorm-y sound design by Richard Frohlich also are impressive.
The best aspect of the Trinity Shakespeare Festival's productions this summer is their location inside the well air-conditioned Hays and Buschman theaters on the TCU campus. It's bad enough to weather three hours of blank verse, but risking heatstroke doing it is far worse.
Low-budget is too generous a way to describe 14 Death Defying Acts: An Autopsy on Hunter S. Thompson, an hour of disoriented spew written and performed by Matthew Posey at his 40-seat Ochre House grotto near Fair Park. Posey founded Deep Ellum Theatre Garage in the 1980s and seems to be stuck in a time warp where "experimental theater" means using crude video, loud rock music and rough-hewn dialogue spoken by actors who've spent a good 15 to 20 minutes rehearsing.
In a glimpse at the later life and writings of the founder of "gonzo journalism," Posey's one-hour performance (interrupted by an unnecessary 15-minute intermish) depicts Thompson, who killed himself in 2005, as a drug-crazed, mumbling stumblebum (accurate enough probably) living in beer-can-strewn squalor. Narrating words as he types, which makes for slow, choppy talk, Posey's Thompson gets up only to go on imaginary road trips with cohorts Gonzo (Xander Aulson, drowned out by the insistent musical underscore) and Leach (Kevin Grammer), and son Juan (Ross Mackey, who along with Aulson is a member of the surf-rock band Astrochrist).
When the bed shapeshifts into a car, that's original and fun. Hanging penlights on twists of wire around their necks to light up their faces in the dark, that's cute. But the song about how much fun it is to beat up a woman, with the girl played by a naked blow-up doll? Not funny, not cute.
"Autopsy" is an appropriate word to describe this thing. It has all the charm of a crime scene.