POSTED ON FEBRUARY 25, 2009:
Methinks I've Seen Thee
But Playhouse Theater's Romeo and Juliet is a fearless and unexpected rendition
If its inaugural performance is any indication, Tulsa audiences can expect to see great things from the newly-formed Playhouse Theater.
Comprised mostly of ORU veterans and students and spearheaded by local actors Chris Crawford and Courtneay Sanders, the company, which according to Crawford aspires to be as compelling and notorious as Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, opened its first production, Romeo and Juliet, to a sold-out Charles E. Norman Theater (Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St.), Fri., Feb. 20.
I spoke with Crawford days before the play's opening about his inspiration for the show and his very contemporary, artistic interpretation, thinking, "If he can pull this off, it could just be something awesome."
Pull it off he did.
Using Shakespeare's original text, Crawford, the show's director, while acknowledging the classic love tale, focused on the play's themes of senseless, generational hate, passed through families with reason or understanding of why.
The players, all 20 of them (according to Crawford) paid, were dressed identically in black Capri pants, t-shirts and shoes and opened the show, reciting its prologue, as actors, gradually slipping into their characters as they donned accessories that helped identify their roles.
The set, designed by Shawn Irish, consisted of a two-tiered circular stage, painted with cobblestones, and a strange-looking apparatus, with slanted stairs on one side, metal bars used for climbing on the other and a large circular hole in the middle. During scene changes, the players rotated the apparatus, signifying a sort of race against time.
Without an elaborate set or costumes, the exposed and vulnerable actors were forced to prove their talent, effectively portraying their characters through pure acting, vocal inflection and subtle body language. And, for the most part, they did not disappoint.
One thing that stood out to me right away was the actors' complete understanding of Shakespeare's language. They did not struggle with their lines; rather, the words flowed from their lips naturally.
Sixteen-year-old Tabitha Littlefield plays a sweet, giddy and innocent Juliet, a casting choice that ensured the youth of the tale's star-crossed lovers is forefront in the audience members' minds. She is cute and likeable and handles her character well.
Sanders, who also serves as Playhouse Theater's managing director, was captivating as the Nurse, and probably one of my favorite performers of the evening. She was at once boisterous and gentle, spry and matronly, and the mother/daughter relationship shared with Juliet, emphasized by her performance, gave the play an added layer of depth.
As Capulet, Stephen Brown was not only domineering but also considerate. I appreciated, in the first act, his very subtle wavering between pride and desire to marry his daughter off to a respected statesman and his mourning the loss of his little girl.
John Knippers was smart and convincing as Friar Lawrence, Jonathan Schrader all but stole the show with his wry, witty performance of Mercutio, and former UTW arts writer Paul Sheckarski gave the most emotional, moving performance of the Prince that I have seen.
Aside from some technical glitches that have likely already been corrected, my only disappointment was Cody Shelton's portrayal of Romeo.
Originally, I thought he played his character without emotion or sincerity. Crawford told me he wanted each of his actors to know his character, to know his character's history and secrets. And I didn't think Shelton knew Romeo; there was no depth to his character.
Later, I thought, perhaps the superficiality was intentional; it's common for an adolescent male to lack the emotional maturity required to properly express himself. Maybe this was the point Shelton was trying to get across.
In the end, I came to the conclusion, after Shelton struggled to accurately express what should have been a natural anguish after losing his lover, that the actor simply suffers from a very common ailment for budding thespians: that he is young and so far unwilling or unable to give himself completely over to a character, to take the risks necessary to produce a dynamite performance. I don't fault him for this; in fact, I hope he will continue to act and develop this skill, that he'll learn to trust himself and forfeit his ego for a compelling performance.
Throughout the play, a young boy (Izaiah Cohen) is dragged on and off the stage with the show's adult players, and he is always witness to whatever violence is happening between the characters. Crawford uses his presence subtly throughout the play and then for a stark, substantive ending.
Each of the players is onstage during the entire production watching as actors. They deftly slip into character as they step onto the platform. Crawford told me this decision was made only days before opening night and was not originally how he wanted to stage the play. However, the movement of the actors between stage and seated position was so natural and worked so well with the director's overall plan for the play that I'm glad he made this choice; it perpetuated his planned time/space quandaries.
Crawford told me he and Sanders started The Playhouse Theater with the purpose of "fearlessly telling stories," inspired by an annual production of A Christmas Carol seen by the pair at the Dallas Theater Center.
I would certainly call this telling of Romeo and Juliet unexpected, inspired and fearless.
The show continues Wed., Feb. 25 through Sat., Feb. 28 at 8pm. Tickets are $15, $10 for students and seniors, at tulsapac.com. For more on The Playhouse Theater and its upcoming productions, playhousetheatertulsa.com.
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