Romeo and Juliet at Tulane’s Lupin Theater through July 30
In trying to review the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane’s (NOSF) current 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 (hey, he’s been busy writing, teaching and raising a family), 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. With these two fine thespians as Mr. & Mrs. C, this is the first time I wish Shakespeare had written another play, The Capulets. (Hmmm…maybe a Netflix TV series?)
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/]
Expressions of America at the National WWII Museum (ongoing)
The newest attraction at The National WWII Museum is the multimedia presentation Expressions of America. The Museum’s website says that the show “brings history to life like never before. Enjoy an unforgettable evening of music, special effects, and entertainment as projections 90 feet tall transport you back in time. Expressions of America offers a glimpse into what life was like for those who served our country in every way imaginable.”
Well, yes, but, like NOSF’s Romeo and Juliet, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
I approached Expressions of America not knowing quite what to expect, as is my wont with such new works, except that it would be about an hour long. I assumed that like the Museum’s 4D experience Beyond All Boundaries, narrated by Tom Hanks, the promised outdoor multimedia presentation would be one self-contained work. As is often the case, it’s probably best not to assume.
I was thus a little surprised when I and the rest of the audience were seated in front of a stage in the large US Freedom Pavilion where WWII warplanes hang overhead. I wondered where the projections would be.
The show began, or so I thought, with a very polished video that seemed to focus on Bob Hope. It offered an interesting, if somewhat hagiographic, view of him and his involvement with our Armed Forces during WWII and beyond. As it went on, I thought “Hmmm…Expressions of America seems to have a narrower vision than I thought it would.”
After about five minutes, it ended and I realized it was basically an acknowledgment of the support (which I suspect was very significant) that the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation provided for the creation of Expressions of America. Fair enough, but they could’ve been a little more up front about it (“And now a word from our sponsor…” or something like that). Not a biggie, tho.
Then the show began, or so I thought, with Chloe Marie Johnson, Hannah Rachal, and Skylend Roussell of the Museum’s Victory Belles performing various WWII-era songs and conveying what life was like back then, especially for the stateside families of the servicemen. I was a little confused, however, as their selections didn’t match what was in the program. For example, it said they’d be singing the Andrews Sisters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy but instead they sang Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree; not a biggie as programs sometimes do change.
As the show continued, the numbers, including Sing, Sing, Sing, This is the Army, I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen, and Deep in the Heart of Texas, were completely different from what was in the program but it hardly mattered as the three Belles sang them, as always, with creamy voices and beautiful harmonies.
Chloe Marie Johnson, Hannah Rachal, and Skylend Roussell are featured as part of Expressions of America
The presentation, including some audience interaction, was a bit old-fashioned (some might even say “corny”) not unlike some of the Museum’s other theatrical offerings, but Rachal’s reading of a letter her Grandfather Ralph wrote from overseas during WWII provided a moving highlight. After about 30 minutes, the Belles concluded with a rousing tribute to all five branches of the Armed Forces.
At which point, the sizable audience was instructed to move outside onto the Parade Ground for the main show, i.e., Expressions of America. Ohhhh, so the hard-working Belles were just a pre-show then? Why didn’t anyone say anything about the format, or at least have it acknowledged in some way in the glossy 24-page program? I suppose in the big scheme of things, this, too, was not a biggie but it made for a somewhat disjointed evening.
So then Expressions of America finally began and quite the experience it was. Narrated by actor Gary Sinise, Expressions makes very impressive use of the area with huge projections occupying every available inch of space on the Museum’s outer walls.
But what exactly are we seeing? The program tells us “Expressions of America immerses audiences in written words, songs, and personal reflections of the everyday men and women who served our country in every way imaginable during World War II, showing how an entire generation of individuals came together to impact the world around them during a time of monumental conflict.
“Whether they served in battle, entertained the troops overseas, or worked on the American Home Front, each person featured in the show did their part to preserve the freedoms we enjoy today.
“Every word you hear from the individuals featured in Expressions of America is drawn directly from wartime personal correspondence and personal accounts mainly from The National WWII Museum’s collection.”
I’ve quoted at length here to give you some idea what one might expect–recitations and songs, eight of which are listed in the program, presumably with accompanying visuals.
That’s fine. What we get, however, is a hodgepodge of visuals which, according to my notes, range from Busby Berkeley-esque to VH1-ish to kinda greeting cards in the early sections to, later on, surreal animation more reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and strange images of floating letters that evoke a more trippy, Vietnam-era feel. Given that there’s a fascinating special exhibit “The Walt Disney Studios and World War II” (thru Sept. 24), why didn’t the people behind Expressions take their visual cues from the abundance of Disney works that exist?
What does come through amid the visual onslaught is a mixed bag. Expressions well-conveys the horrors of war, and when it asks “How can you possibly describe what it’s like inside a war?” it poses a good, valid question. But there are also such platitudes as “[The war] turned lives upside down.” Duh.
One can admire that Expressions’ creators assembled a very diverse group of people through which to tell their story. Unfortunately, however, the program somewhat papers over the discrimination of the era, particularly what Blacks and Asians faced. (Some of Tony Bennett’s obituaries included a tale of what happened when he tried to bring a Black soldier, a high school friend of his, to the white servicemen’s mess hall for a Thanksgiving dinner in Germany in 1945. The resulting actions of an officer are absolutely sickening.) And gays and lesbians are, not entirely surprisingly, utterly invisible.
Oddly (or maybe not so oddly), some of the very same clips from the Bob Hope intro reappear in Expressions, causing an unnecessary repetitiousness. It did cause me to wonder, however, if Hope (or anyone similar) ever performed for servicewomen or the hard-working “Rosie the Riveters” at home. I only recall seeing images of Hope doing his worthy USO shows for hundreds of guys.
While the words of Expressions may come from letters and oral histories, who pulled it all together? There’s an Executive Creative Director (Daren Ulmer), a Senior Creative Producer (Stormie Miller), a Creative Director (David Briggs), a Producer (Brian Smith) and many more names in the production credits, but no one is listed as actually having written the script, which might explain the jumbled experience that has resulted.
I rather suspect these creative types realized that the actual people and their letters got somewhat lost among the razzle-dazzle and so added a less-frenzied 10-minute “Post-Show” that allows for a clearer and more comprehensible presentation of “what life was like for those who served our country”. This section, however, presents much of the same information included in the program about the people who are featured in Expressions.
Am I being hypercritical? Perhaps, but the audience, while seemingly enjoying Expressions, gave it polite applause at the end and then filed out quietly as though, overwhelmed, they were still processing what they had just seen.
It’s clear that a lot of time, money and effort went into Expressions of America. And the people behind it certainly meant well. But our WWII servicemen & women and the people on the home front deserve a better, more coherent tribute to their lives and contributions to our country.
[For tickets and more info, go to https://expressionsofamerica.org/]