Theater Review: Romeo and Juliet at A Noise Within

On a typically warm SoCal Sunday afternoon I jumped onto a frigidly air-conditioned bus for the seven-minute jaunt to the Eastern Pasadena locale of the theater company known as A Noise Within. But as always my first stop was Hook Burger, though I was in a time dilemma: I wasn’t hungry yet at 1:30PM, but the play wouldn’t be done till 4:30, which meant my stomach would be gnawing at me around intermission time. So I did the only logical thing: rather than having a burger that I wasn’t in the mood for yet, I ordered an orange cream float, because everyone has room for ice cream, right? I even found out I can have it to go, which sounded weird but turned out easier than I anticipated, in a regular fancy-coffee-style cup with me adding the orange cream soda whenever needed through the hole in the dome on top.
Once inside the stylish 1960’s building housing the theater, I spent some time perusing the display of past productions, as next year is the company’s 25th anniversary and they want the fans to play a part in choosing next year’s shows. That wasted enough time for me to finish my dessert-first-or-only meal before heading down to my seat. Once comfortably ensconced, I took in the stage, which featured a graffiti backdrop with similarly decorated dumpsters. More to the point, the actors were on stage, walking around, talking to each other, as though psyching themselves up. In my head I joked that they were going to form in a circle and put their hands in for “Break!” only to find them actually doing it!
Okay, on to Romeo and Juliet, no doubt the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, along with Hamlet; star-crossed lovers and all that. In the lobby I’d seen plenty of teens, so I wondered just how surprised they would be to find the play isn’t just the love affair that is emphasized in most high school English classes, no doubt in order to get the students to pay more attention.
Unlike people I’ve talked to who are fascinated by every rendition of the Queen Mab soliloquy, I’ve never thought of it as that special. . . until Rafael Goldstein did it here. I can’t even tell you why it got to me this time, only that it did, at least enough for me to remember it as one of the highlights.
Just about every Shakespeare piece has some music to it, in this case the party at the Capulets, where Romeo sneaks in and first sees Juliet. The difference in this production was the inclusion of a live violinist up in what would later become Juliet’s window (don’t get me started on the “balcony” thing). There’s also enough banging on the dumpsters during the fight scenes to remind me of Stomp.
I’ve seen Robinson Dean in plenty of productions here, as well as being the translator for Antigone, but this is my first time watching him do comedy, shuffling about barefoot like a ditzy old man; his exclamation of “Holy Saint Francis!” had me metaphorically rolling on the floor. Lacy Capulet, played by company regular Jill Hill, brought some levity as well as heavy angst to the small role, looking like a Beverly Hills matron/airhead in her gold boots while smoking and drinking before letting it all out when she wanted Romeo dead for killing her nephew Tybalt.
But if I had to single out one actor, it would be June Carryl, whom at the beginning shows a barely controlled rage as the Prince—I love how this company has a tradition of casting women in male roles, as though thumbing their nose at Shakespeare’s time, when all the actors were men—and then delivering a hilarious performance as the nurse, particularly when she exasperates Juliet by claiming she’s too out of breath to tell the news. I wish I could remember her turn on Castle, but I’ll sure be on the lookout for her name from now on. Also switching genders was Charlotte Gulezian as a tomboyish Benvolio, who quickly made me forget the character was supposed to be male, so natural was she.
If I had one small quibble it would be with Will Bradley in the male lead. Let’s face it, Romeo is well described as the world’s first Emo, so there’s plenty of room to ham things up. Still, I thought that in this performance he might have taken it too far; having seen it so many times, this is the first time I really didn’t like Romeo, thought he was a selfish jerk more than just a guy carried away by love. Will was so excellent in Figaro, but that was a farce, where there’s no limit to the ham, cheese, and relish you can stuff in that acting sandwich, but here I would have appreciated just a touch more restraint. Also leaving tooth marks on the scenery was Alan Blumenfeld as Capulet, but whether being jovial at the party or angry during the fights scenes and his disagreement with Juliet, it seemed completely in character.
I almost hate to leave out Juliet, because it’s not that I had any problem with Donnla Hughes’ portrayal. I suppose because some of the other actors were so amazing, she didn’t register as much with me, or perhaps as the voice of reason she didn’t get as much opportunity to shine.
As for the set, I don’t think the graffiti-clad alleyway did anything for me; not worse, but not better. Same for their clothes, though Romeo in a hoodie was as perfect as possible. What was strange was seeing the actors hanging around the stage, both in the wings and on the steps around the stage, almost part of the audience, watching but not part of it, seeing things their characters didn’t. Have to admit it was a little distracting.
The dumpsters, on the other hand, might be considered their own characters. They are used to full effect, like in the scene with the apothecary, where he’s inside the usually-smelly rolling box, wearing a mask so we don’t see it’s same actor as Mercutio. There’s plenty of acrobatics on them, with some of the actors lying on them as they watch the action, banging for sound effect. At one point Juliet is climbing back to her window and hangs with her foot on the narrow side protrusion, a precarious position that had me fearing for her safety. Even more so was when the dumpster was used to hold her supposedly dead body at the end, though fortunately for her comfort they added a mattress. Since it’s impossible to gauge how wide the thing is from the audience, I was again distracted by the thought she might fall off, more than doubly so when Romeo joined her up there. The paper lanterns didn’t help the depth perception either, and made the scene kinda eerie, yet also produced a beautiful light as Juliet lies there. And then there’s Paris lying on the floor for what seemed like forever. . .
Whooo! Deep breath as the light come up. As usual I waited while most people scooted out, then glanced at the nextrip app and saw that my bus was leaving in two minutes! Dashing up the stairs, which none of my doctors recommend, I dodge through the crowd like a running back, out the back door, along the small tree-lined walkway between the condos and the construction site, and into the cavernous bus station under the parking structure and light-rail station. Made it just as the bus was pulling in! Endorphins flow!

Bonus coverage!
Last night was the meeting of the INsiders, a group under the auspices of A Noise Within who gather to discuss the plays being done, and of course this was Romeo and Juliet night. That was why I waited to write this review even though I saw the production last week. We were joined by Miranda Johnson-Haddad, who is a renown Shakespearean expert, and Amir Abdullah, who brought Paris to life. . . and death.
But first I had to go to Hook Burger of course, for my customary Prime Burger plain with cheese and bacon, with an orange cream soda to wash it all down. It only helped that they had sent me a coupon for a free burger in the mail, and I went early enough not to worry about being late to the meeting. In fact I had enough time to walk down the block to the really long strip mall, where I bypassed Jamba to hit up Baskin Robbins, finding to my amazement they had a bucket of orange sherbet open for business! I have not seen orange available for at least five years, so it felt like this was a night where nothing could go wrong, and to hell with tempting fate!
Hard to remember all the topics that were covered once things got started, but with this being such a popular play there was plenty to discuss, even for me; in the past I’ve felt left out when I didn’t know the production all that well. My main question for Amir was: considering the setting and costumes, was there any discussion to completely modernize and set the play in contemporary times? He admitted they had talked about it, and he joked that he would have liked to pull out his cell phone when he’s asked the time, but they ultimately decided against it, which I think was the right call for two reasons. First and foremost, the tragedy hinges on Romeo not getting the news that Juliet’s faking her death, with the Black Plague as an excuse for the messenger not getting the job done. In modern times it would have simply taken an email, and would have been especially timely, since Romeo would have heard about Juliet’s death on Facebook or Twitter. The second reason was that even if modern doctors were fooled by the potion simulating Juliet’s death. . . autopsy! Yikes!
One point that I forgot to bring up was that this is not just an infatuation between teens, but an infatuation between RICH teens. Had they been peasants, no one would have cared, and all the deaths wouldn’t have happened. In fact, poor teens probably wouldn’t have reacted that way anyhow; they had work to do.
{Hmmmm, I just remembered there were a couple of times when Miranda said, “What’s discussed in this room stays in this room.” Oopsie. . .}

;o)

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