Whether you love, loathe, or aren’t all that familiar with plays by Shakespeare — “R & J: Romeo & Juliet,” presented by EclecticPond Theatre Company is a production you will simply relish. That’s because the drama, which opened Friday at the historic Irvington Lodge, has been given a fresh and contemporary treatment that doesn't compromise its integrity. At the same time, if you happen to be a die-hard purist, "R & J" may not be your cup of tea.
Directed by Thomas Cardwell, a native of Stratford-upon- Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace), England, with his wife Catherine serving as assistant director, the script for “R & J: Romeo & Juliet,” was adapted by the couple along with Maria Souza. The Cardwells met when Catherine, who is a native of Indy, attended the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford, where Thomas acted in its productions.
The Cardwells, who are its founders, formed EclecticPond, now in its third season, to produce “inventive and exciting adaptations of Shakespeare and other playwrights, enabling the works to become relevant and appealing to a new generation of audiences.”
In order to reach those new theatregoers, EclecticPond hopes to take “R & J” to area schools once the show closes on Sept. 29. By then, the production, which currently has a running time of one hour and 25 minutes, will be paired down to one hour for school performances. The version seen Friday did not seem to sacrifice any crucial script content but it remains to be seen how an even more edited one will fare.
Also making the production unique, in its current state, is the fact that every night of the run, there will be a different cast of 8 actors (from a roster of 15 in the ensemble).
Friday night’s cast, most of whom played multiple roles, included Lisa K. Anderson as Friar Lawrence/ Montague, Matt Anderson as Mercutio/Paris, Christa Shoot Grimmer as the Prince/Nurse, Kate Homan as Benvolio, David Marlowe as Romeo, Meagan Matlock as Tybalt/ Lady Capulet, Maria Souza as Juliet and Noah Winston as Capulet/Apothecary.
“R & J” is made relevant for contemporary audiences, and young people in particular, by modern clothes worn by the characters; Shakespeare's dialogue which, here, is devoid of contrived, quasi-British accents and delivered by the actors in a conversational manner (with excellent diction – making it even more understandable); a set featuring flats covered with newspapers with play references, written, in magic marker, on them; tall aluminum step ladders and garbage can used inventively as props; and contemporary music to enhance the play's action.
Adding to “R & J” and EclecticPond’s appeal in general is its showcasing of first rate performers who are a welcome addition to the city’s substantial talent pool. Though non-professional, there is no question that their performances are anything but of a professional quality.
Stand outs in “R & J” included Marlowe as Romeo and Souza as Juliet, both of whom were ideal fits for the roles as the star-crossed lovers, whose tragic deaths cause their feuding families to reconcile. Their performances in both the famous balcony scene during which they reveal their love for one another and the crypt scene where Romeo, believing Juliet to be dead, poisons himself, after which she awakens to discover him dead and then stabs herself — were exquisite for their portrayal of the doomed couple’s intimacy and for capturing the irrepressible naivety of their characters, that ultimately contributes to their horrific demise.
Speaking of the crypt scene — it was unfortunate that it was played so far upstage, because it cheated the audience out of an opportunity to get a closer look at Souza and Marlowe's moving performances.
Also impressive was Christa Shoot Grimmer as the nurse, who was captivating for the colorful nuance, detail and vitality she brought to her characterization of Juliet’s loyal and protective servant, confidant and messenger.
Displaying skilled versatility as an actor was Megan G. Matlock who, dressed in a tight skirt and high heels, looked and acted like a cast member of an imagined “Housewives of Verona,” as Lady Capulet. Alternately, she was equally believable as Juliet’s tough-as-nails, male cousin Tybalt who slays Romeo’s best friend Mercutio (Matt Anderson) in a knife fight, only to be killed in retaliation by Romeo.
Guided by fight choreographer Scott Russell’s superb direction, Matlock, Anderson and Marlowe were riveting in some of the most realistic looking fight scenes ever witnessed by this reviewer, on any local stage.
Cardwell’s overall direction made for a fast-paced, action packed experience that was as entertaining as it was engrossing and affecting. Hopefully, he and his company will be given the opportunity to present “R & J,” to many young people so that they too, like all the generations before them, will benefit from Shakespeare’s works and universal themes, which EclecticPond proves do not have to be either archaic or boring.
For tickets and information about EclecticPond Theatre Company’s “R & J: Romeo & Juliet,” call (317) 207-2080 or visit www.eclecticpond.org. The Irvington Lodge is located at 5515 E. Washington Street, Indianapolis, Ind. 46219.
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