Romeo and Juliet at Tulane’s Dixon Hall on January 12
[Romeo and Juliet, which played at Tulane’s Lupin Theater last summer, returns on January 12 for one performance at Tulane’s Dixon Hall. The following are excerpts from my July 2023 review of it.]
In trying to review the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane’s (NOSF) production of Romeo and Juliet, to use the lingo of today, “It’s complicated.”
First of all, it’s a good solid production without a weak link in the cast, similar to NOSF’s Twelfth Night earlier this year. A 2-for-2 NOSF season gives cause for celebration as that’s more palpable hits than NOSF usually comes up with in any given year.
Full disclosure: R&J is not one of my favorites of the Bard’s plays; I’ve never really “bought” its whole they-meet-and-in-a-few-days-are-ready-to-kill-themselves-over-each-other plotting, but couldn’t entirely put my finger on what rubs me the wrong way about it. I think I now have the answer.
After her extraordinary, chameleon-like turn in Single Black Female and dazzling Electra in The Cuck, as well as her hilarious Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream this spring, I had high expectations for Alexandria Miles’ Juliet. Suffice to say, she did not disappoint.
Short of stature (tho, huge of talent), Miles makes for a rare Juliet who actually convinces that she’s only about thirteen years old. More importantly, not only does she endow Juliet with a keen intelligence–you suspect she’s probably the smartest person in any given room–but she wisely makes evident the inherent petulance of a spoiled tween girl. (She also navigates her “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” speech with fabulous, knife-sharp precision.)
As for Edward Montoya, making his New Orleans debut as Romeo, he offers a suitably lovesick teen, in love with the sound of his voice and his words of love. He’s a bro, a charismatic leader of the guys, even if his romanticism masks a certain superficiality–whaddya expect from a privileged teen?
Edward Montoya and Alexandria Miles in Romeo and Juliet
Montoya brings all this out, while always speaking Shakespeare’s words trippingly. He’s also a good-looking young man and, when he doffs his shirt in the bedroom scene, quite hunky, too.
Do I entirely buy that Juliet falls for him, tho? No. Why? Miles’ Juliet clearly has more brain wattage than this Romeo and I don’t think she suffers fools gladly. While certainly handsome with his mop of curly hair, Montoya is no dashing matinee idol, as some Romeos are; he sports a slightly doughy face as might be expected from a teen who’s yet to fully grow into his adult body. And how hot is Romeo? After all, Juliet tells him “You kiss by the book.”
Why then does Miles’ Juliet rush into marriage with this Romeo (who I’m not convinced–partly due to the text, partly due to Montoya’s slightly laid-back performance–is all that ready to settle down with any one woman)? Because her parents want her to marry Count Paris, as it would be a socially and politically good match, and she doesn’t want to. Not at all.
And this is where Director Burton Tedesco’s production comes up short. We simply don’t feel any great urgency pressing on Juliet to cause her to disobey her stern parents, in part because Joe Signorelli is miscast as Paris. He’s an attractive guy and his well-played Paris seems nice and likable–why wouldn’t Juliet want to marry him? Paris needs to be a nerd, a dork, a brute, a something, to make Juliet’s aversion to him fully comprehensible.
While I can certainly appreciate other approaches to the play (like, R & J really really really have the hots for each other (which might be a little cringey these days given their ages)), in this production, with its brainiac Juliet and dude-ish Romeo (a wholly appropriate, text-based choice for Montoya, in league with Tedesco, to employ), we need to feel the weight of desperation pushing down on Juliet and causing her to make unwise choices. In Tedesco’s all too realistic staging (some ominous lighting or sound cues wouldn’t have been out of place), we simply don’t get it.
Instead, we’re left with a straightforward version of the centuries-old, hugely popular tragedy (tho, I much prefer Lear or Othello or Macbeth).
Straightforward it may be, but not without its pleasures (I told you this was complicated).
Michael Santos, who’s been away from our stages too long, crafts an outstanding Lord Capulet, his every word suffused with gravitas, as a doting father…except when he doesn’t get his way. In a lovely, multi-faceted performance, Monica R. Harris as Lady Capulet well-matches Santos, girlishly engaging with her daughter one moment, unyielding the next.
The ever-reliable Shelly J. Meier brings a refreshing playfulness and sassiness to Juliet’s Nurse, a woman very sure of herself. When she says, however, “O Tybalt, Tybalt, the best friend I had!”, after his death, I couldn’t help but think “Huh? We’ve never seen this relationship”. Whether this is Shakespeare’s fault, Tedesco’s or some combination, I’m not entirely sure.
David Sellars invests Friar Laurence with a touching compassion. I just wish the Friar didn’t have to explain everything–WHICH WE JUST SAT THRU–again at the play’s end.
As a fiery Mercutio, Leyla Beydoun gives her best NOSF performance yet well-fulfilling Mercutio’s description as someone who “loves to hear himself talk”, not only in the Queen Mab speech, but even when dying. That said, she could’ve slowed down just a bit to better savor Shakespeare’s language; for example, had I not distinctly heard, in Hahnville HS’s 2021 R&J, Mercutio’s wonderful line to Benvolio, “…the very pin of his [Romeo’s] heart [has been] cleft with the blind bow-boy’s butt-shaft”, I would’ve missed it here.
Speaking of Beydoun, I have nothing against gender-reversed roles, but in this R&J, while pronouns were also reversed, other gender markers like “Sir” remained. There’s something to be said for gender-fluidity in Shakespeare, but this half’n’half approach simply didn’t seem to be very well thought through.
Also, not very well thought through were some of the characters, especially Romeo, breaking the fourth wall and addressing audience members directly. It happened only occasionally and with only mild engagement so it was unclear what to make of it.
I’m also not sure what to make of Tedesco’s “Director’s Notes” in which he speaks movingly of his great-great-grandfather’s involvement in the wars for Italian unification. He then continues, “The aftermath of the Third War for Italian Independence provides the backdrop for this production of Romeo and Juliet.” and goes on to note that the Capulets and the Montagues represent the two sides of that conflict.
That’s fine, but little to nothing of that was evident in the production itself. Joan Long’s traditional set, Hope Bennett’s beautiful costumes, and Graham Burk’s pretty music & Samantha Pazos’s lovely choreography for the Capulets’ ball, all struck me as vaguely15th or 16th century. Tedesco, noting how the unrest of the 19th century eventually caused his great-grandparents to leave Italy for the New World, posits a worthy concept for R&J; I just wish he had followed through on it.
What Tedesco did do, excellently as always, was the production’s fight choreography with its dramatic interplay of clanging swords and daggers in a world where violence erupts quickly.
So, complicated, yes? All I know for sure is that Romeo and Juliet may be dead, but I hope to see more of Alexandria Miles and Edward Montoya in the future.
[For tickets and more info, go to https://neworleansshakespeare.org/products/romeo-and-juliet-public-performance]
With Mardi Gras so early this year, that doesn’t allow much time for theatergoing what with balls and parades and parties and marching groups strutting their stuff. Still, if you crave an entertaining alternative to Carnival festivities, the following productions are well worth checking out.
Intramural Theater kicks off the season with the regional premiere of The Trees by Agnes Borinsky. Debuting at the Contemporary Arts Center on January 11, and running through January 22, The Trees tells the story of two siblings who literally take root in the earth and begin turning into trees. Over the course of the next seven years, they become pillars of an accidental and richly meaningful community. The production, directed by Artistic Director Bennett Kirschner, features Ian Hoch and Rebeckah Gordon-Kirk.
Ian Hoch and Rebeckah Gordon-Kirk in The Trees (photo by Zach Buckner)
Founded in 2015, Intramural Theater has been offering New Orleans audiences quirky, intriguing, and often quite brilliant original scripts such as CAVE (2023) and The Cuck (2022). If The Trees, seen last year at Playwrights Horizons in New York, is half as good as either of those, you’ll be in for a treat. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.intramuraltheater.org/thetrees
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? takes the stage at Le Petit January 18-February 3 with a fresh perspective from Tommye Myrick as she directs an all-Black cast in this Tony Award winner for Best Play.
Lance E. Nichols returns to Le Petit after appearing there last spring in August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned to take on the role of George opposite his wife Zardis as Martha, in her Le Petit Theatre debut. Nicoye Banks as Nick and Jarrell Hamilton as Honey are the younger couple caught up in George & Martha’s parlor games. [UPDATE: Due to ongoing health issues of Lance Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been canceled. It will be replaced by Jonathan Tolins’ comedy Buyer & Cellar. Details to follow.]
From January 25 through February 4, Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) will be presenting the regional premiere of Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop which envisions what Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final night might have been like.
Set in King’s room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Mountaintop opens on a stormy night as King returns from giving the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in support of the sanitation workers’ strike. He orders some coffee from room service and shortly Camae, a housekeeper, arrives with it. Camae is not whom she appears to be, however, and so you’ll have to go to JPAS’ theater in Westwego to discover who she really is.
Kiane D. Davis, who has done memorable work in recent seasons, directs The Mountaintop. While I’m not familiar with Kayla Ceaser, who plays Camae, Damien Moses, who’ll portray MLK, is one of the finest actors in town. Details at https://www.jpas.org/performance/the-mountaintop/
On the Northshore, in case you can’t make it to NOSF’s version, Slidell Little Theatre will be doing Romeo and Juliet January 12-21. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s not exactly a happily-ever-after ending. Tickets at https://www.slidelllittletheatre.org/upcomingevents?pageid=167437
On the other hand, you should have no trouble finding a happy ending in Mandeville at 30 by Ninety Theatre as they’re presenting Nunsense, January 20 through February 4, Dan Goggin’s musical about the misadventures of five nuns trying to put together a talent show fundraiser since the rest of the sisterhood died from botulism after eating vichyssoise prepared by Sister Julia Child of God and they need to raise money to bury their dearly departed. To see the Little Sisters of Hoboken, go to https://30byninety.com/shows/nunsense/
If the end of the Netflix’s The Crown has left you needing a British royal fix, head to Playmakers Theater for The Lion in Winter, to watch the titanic struggle between King Henry II and Queen Elinor of Aquitaine to determine which of their three sons will inherit the throne. This award-winning play (and movie) centers around the inner conflicts of the royal family as they fight over both a kingdom and King Henry’s paramour during the Christmas of 1183.
Chase Hefte directs Julie Generes in the role of Elinor and Eric Generes as King Henry II. Playing their ambitious sons are Quinton Williams as Richard, James Rivard as Geoffrey, and Aydan Lemonier as John. Payton Core and Robert Lott complete the cast as the French royal siblings Alais and Philip.
The show opens in Covington on January 20 and runs through February 4. Tickets are available through https://bontempstix.com/organizations/playmakers-theater-of-covington
Back on the Southshore, if you want to get into the spirit of Carnival, head to Le Petit on February 1 for a one-night-only concert performance of a new musical, San by David Gosz & Leo Fotos, which tells the story of Mardi Gras costume designer Calvin San Nicholas.
Growing up in poverty in the French Quarter in the 1930s, Nicholas showed prodigious artistic skills. “San,” as he was known to his friends, eventually moved to New York to pursue an education in fashion design. In the 1950s, he returned to New Orleans and, overcoming adversity, launched a decades-long career designing thousands of elaborate Carnival costumes for numerous krewes including Endymion, Orpheus, Thoth, Venus, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, and Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club, among others.
Following the concert, attendees will second line to the nearby Presbytère for the grand opening of a new exhibition, To Be a Star: The Carnival Costume Designs of San Nicholas, which commemorates the centennial of Nicholas’ birth. The exhibit, which runs through December 8, 2025, will include over one hundred of San’s beautiful watercolor designs as well as seven complete original costumes from the Louisiana State Museum’s Carnival Collection. Tickets for the combined event are available at https://ci.ovationtix.com/36212/production/1188542.
And for something completely different, JPAS presents No Gravity Theatre’s Divine Comedy: From Hell to Paradise onstage for one night only, February 3, at Jefferson Performing Arts Center in Metairie.
Divine Comedy has been described as “Angels and devils clash in spectacular duels. Acrobatic lights, flying actors, souls that fall like leaves in autumn…It could be the description of a painting by Bosch” and “Dancers, as if freed from gravitation, float in the air to the rhythm of music ranging from rock to classical. Inspired by Dante’s most famous scenes, evoking a surrealist combination of Magritte and Escher, [Divine Comedy] takes us into a waking dream.”
No Gravity is an Italian performing arts company that creates multidisciplinary performances and theatrical shows inspired by the extraordinary mechanics of Renaissance and Baroque theater. This is their first United States tour; the show runs seventy-five minutes without intermission. To purchase tickets, visit https://www.jeffersonpac.com/ or call (504) 885-2000.
No Gravity Theatre’s Divine Comedy: From Hell to Paradise
Sounds like No Gravity would be right at home in the St. Ann parade. Enjoy!
I was saddened to learn of the passing of New Orleans Opera (NOO) General and Artistic Director Emeritus Robert Lyall on January 5 at age 76. Though we did not know each other well, we were certainly nodding acquaintances. Rather, I admired him from afar and always looked forward to his performances
The director and principal conductor of NOO from 1998 to 2021, I wrote about him often.
In 2014, describing his conducting of Massenet’s Cinderella, I noted, “As always, conductor Robert Lyall led the LPO commandingly, bringing out the delicacy of Massenet’s music and getting its essential “French-ness” just right…Lyall, along with director Jose Maria Condemi, wisely kept a brisk pace yet allowed the more contemplative moments room to breath.”
Leading Joan of Arc in 2020, “As always, Maestro Robert Lyall conducted with sensitivity, bringing out the grandeur in Tchaikovsky’s music.”
Regarding 2017’s performance of Laura Kaminsky’s As One, about a trans person, “Proving he’s just as incisive and insightful with a contemporary chamber opera as he is with Verdi and Wagner, NOO Artistic Director Robert Lyall conducted The Polymnia Quartet with passion and assurance.”
Finally, I just summed it up in 2018 when he led Rameau’s Pygmalion in conjunction with New Orleans’ Tricentennial, “Lyall led the orchestra with his usual brilliance, drawing out a crisp performance from the players. What can’t this man conduct with the highest level of artistry? From the standard repertoire to contemporary works (As One), tango operas (Maria de Buenos Aires) and, now, these Baroque pieces, this Maestro and the musicians he leads are never less than magnificent.”
Even Covid couldn’t keep him down, despite it keeping audiences at home. In 2021, NOO presented Menotti’s The Medium online and my review stated, “NOO Artistic Director Robert Lyall, for whom this has been a passion project, conducted a 14-piece ensemble made up of LPO members and, as always, gave a commanding account of the score bringing out both its dissonant and more comforting moments with equal expertise.”
His importance, however, went beyond just his work on the podium, In 2019, I commented upon Lera Auerbach’s The Blind, an a capella opera for 12 voices based on a 1890 play by Maurice Maeterlinck that “Those of us who appreciate works beyond the standard operatic canon owe a debt of gratitude to Artistic Director Robert Lyall for bringing The Blind to New Orleans, as NOO is only the second company in the United States to produce it. Bravo!”
Yet, my most vivid and favorite image of Maestro Lyall is from 2012 and the New Orleans Fringe Festival, and demonstrates his dedication to the arts, in general, and NOLA’s performing arts culture in particular. It was late on Architect Street between Port and St. Ferdinand Streets in the Marigny.
As I wrote, “Not only did crowds come out for all things Fringe-y, but there was a heartening diversity to them. The usual theater junkies mixed with alternative bohemians mixed with Uptown types; even Maestro Robert Lyall of the New Orleans Opera Association was seen heading to one show at 11pm on the final Sunday!”
He will be missed. R.I.P