REVIEW: Romeo and Juliet (Chicago Shakespeare)

 

CST breathes new life into Shakespeare’s tragic lovers

 

 Tybalt (Zach Appelman, left) duels Mercutio (Ariel Shafir) as the Montagues restrain Romeo from interfering.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

   
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents
   
Romeo and Juliet
   
Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by
Gale Edwards
CST’s Courtyard Theatre at
Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. (map)
through November 21  |  tickets: $44-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

You know the story: two lovers from feuding houses fall desperately in love and then they die. Gale Edwards’ production of Romeo and Juliet proves that no matter how many times Shakespeare’s plays are performed, they can still be fresh and relevant if the cast has the technique to make the language thrive in a modern audience’s ear. Shakespeare leaves directorial cues all throughout his scripts – in verse structure, Juliet (Joy Farmer-Clary) discovers Romeo (Jeff Lillico) at her balcony. Photo by Liz Lauren. punctuation, and even spelling – and if the actor obeys these, emotion arises naturally. This Romeo and Juliet ensemble fully understands this, delivering the text with outstanding precision that makes the meaning of each word clear even if the vocabulary is unfamiliar.

The play begins in a graffitied, urban alley split down the middle by construction horses, a foreboding setting that quickly explodes with life as the Capulets and Montagues thrust open the garage doors that line the stage to battle each other. Fight director Rick Sordelet is the real star here, choreographing an epic brawl that has the actors dodging multiple rapier attacks while construction horses fly through the air and are swung like swords. The stakes are set high from the very outset and the violence stays intense and believable throughout the production, never letting the tension die.

Under Gale Edwards’ keen directorial eye, the romance between Romeo (Jeff Lillico) and Juliet (Joy Farmer-Clary) blossoms, beginning with their very first moment at the Capulet ball. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set utilizes the entire length of the thrust stage, creating a hall of immense depth that allows for great moments of tension through the characters’ spatial relationships, and when the two lovers first meet they are separated by distance but their chemistry is immediate. The coy Juliet makes a run for it, and the childlike innocence on display as they chase each other around the hall quickly transforms into lusty romance as first their fingers, then lips, intertwine. The leads expertly capture the dynamic of two hormonally charged teenagers, particularly Farmer-Clary, whose Juliet struggles to hold on to her virtue as she falls deeper for Romeo.

Romeo (Jeff Lillico, right) persuades Friar Laurence (David Lively) to wed him to Juliet. Photo by Liz Lauren. Nurse (Ora Jones, left) tells Juliet (Joy Farmer-Clary) that Romeo has arranged to marry her that very day.
Mercutio (Ariel Shafir, left) is restrained by Romeo (Jeff Lillico) before the Capulet ball.  Photo by Liz Lauren. Romeo (Jeff Lillico) promises his bride Juliet (Joy Farmer-Clary) that his banishment will not keep them apart. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The production doesn’t shy away from the erotic, instead relishing in Shakespeare’s bawdy puns, particularly the overtly sexual Mercutio (Ariel Shafir). Shafir fearlessly tackles the plethora of double entendres he is handed, often going to grotesque extremes that are hilarious but inappropriate for print. These lead to some especially humorous moments when he encounters the Nurse (Ora Jones), who is completely unprepared for the barrage of insults he hurls her way, with most of them of a decidedly erotic nature. Jones’ brilliant portrayal of the Nurse is one of the play’s highlights, showing the motherly affection that Lady Capulet (Judy Blue) lacks while still being a safe, friendly presence in Juliet’s life. Whether teasing, comforting, or advising, it is easy to see why the Nurse is Juliet’s closest confidant, and Jones’ exaggerated mannerisms (and one completely over-the-top dress) make her a comedic goldmine throughout the production.

The posters for Romeo and Juliet ask, “How long will it take for you to fall in love with Shakespeare?” Judging from the quality of Gale Edwards’ fast-paced, emotionally-rich production, it should take no time at all.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

In the House of Capulet, Lord Capulet (John Judd, center) and Lady Capulet (Judy Blue, second from left) prepare to receive guests. Photo by Liz Lauren.

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REVIEW: Our Lady of the Underpass (16th Street Theater, with Teatro Vista)

A compelling story, no matter what you see

 

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16th Street Theater (with Teatro Vista) presents
 
Our Lady of the Underpass
 
Written by Tanya Saracho
Directed by Sandra Marquez

at 16th Street Theater, 6420 W. 16th Street, Berwyn
(map)
through May 1 (more info)

By Catey Sullivan

Roughly mid-way through Our Lady of the Underpass, a disgruntled jogger played by Chris Cantelmi goes off on the “retards”  fucking up  his Fullerton Avenue running route as they gather to pray at the titular image.

“These Catholics,” he snarls, adjusting his scrotum through his expensive running gear, “They’re like, ‘Look at my grilled cheese! It’s Jesus! Call a press conference!”

If there’s a more authentic archetype of urban assholery on stage this month, we’d be surprised. With a wad of chewing gum and the ugly air of entitlement peculiar to 20something boys with a full head of hair and a Gold’s Gym physique, Cantalemi captures in full the egoism and the cluelessness of  fellow that’s all too recognizable.

Juan Gabriel Ruiz (photo credit: Art Carillo) He’s but one in the vivid, vibrant parade of characters that people Tanya Saracho’s docudrama centering on the image Obdulia Delgado discovered on the Fullerton Avenue underpass five years ago this month. Directed by Sandra Marquez (who helmed the same cast in last year’s world-premiere of Our Ladyat Victory Gardens), this joint Teatro Vista16th Street production offers an alternately tragic, comic, and provocative examination of faith and skepticism in Chicago.

Saracho spent months, tape-recorder in hand, at the underpass many claimed was a sacred spot after an image of the Virgin Mary (or was it a salt stain?) appeared. As the candles, flowers and petitions accrued, she interviewed the pilgrims who flocked to visit the manifestation of the Virgin Mary -  as well as those who insisted it was a bad patch job.  Our Lady captures the depth and breadth of both the spiritual and the cynical in six, captivating monologues. The disparate (and often desperate) stories are so wholly compelling, it becomes easy to overlook Saracho’s formidable powers as a reporter. At the underpass, complete strangers unburdened  their darkest secrets to her – hopes, hurts and emotions that, in many cases, they had never uttered aloud. If the playwriting thing doesn’t work out for Saracho, she’s surely got a career as an investigative journalist.

In contrast to Cantelmi’s masterstroke as the quintessential tool, Our Lady presents Suzette Mayobre as a Huppie (an upwardly mobile Latina) inexplicably shuddering through a complete breakdown in pink monkey pajamas and Uggs. Her story of a fairy tale relationship (“It was like we were trapped in an ad for a cruise”) that suddenly, literally turns to shit is as hilarious as it is upsetting. If doesn’t matter if you can’t directly relate to the plight of a woman whose perfect boyfriend takes an unforeseen  scatological swerve. Anyone who has ever  been forced to deal with the unthinkable  – and gone a little crazy trying to do so – will recognize themselves in this  moving, tragically funny portrait.

Equally compelling is Gabriel Juan Ruiz as Tony, Elgin resident, aspiring deacon and self-appointed guardian of the Underpass.  Ruiz creates a marvelous trajectory from soft-spoken reason to feral, screaming misogyny  in the space of a single monologue. Women are god’s creatures, Tony rhapsodizes with the gentle, doe-eyed wonder of a lamb -  until (and here, Ruiz captures the distilled essence of bug-eyed mania) they turn into the “beast of the Revelation.”  With Tony’s parting words, Ruiz’ unleashes a neediness that’s downright scary: “I’ve been on television four times!” He yells, and in that frenzied distress, one gets the sense of a desperation that’s almost sociopathic.

underpass1 On the other end of the spectrum is Charin Alvarez, as La Tia, the aunt of a severely disabled boy who is the love of her life. Her story unfolds in the self-effacing tones of a woman who has always put herself a far distant second behind anyone else she might encounter, from immediate family to factory co-workers. Recalling a  transnational Monterrey-to-Chicago love story, the family reunion that upended her life and her abiding devotion to a child not apt to live past one more birthday, Alvarez speaks with a melodious, near-hypnotic tone that is both her artistic signature and the voice of a unique character. It’s a sad, lovely and powerful story.

The one piece in Our Lady that does not work quite so well this time around is the nurse’s tale, the narrative of a Polish-American RN whose bitter recollections of growing up the daughter of a cleaning lady have shaped her angry world outlook. Amanda Powell – the sole newcomer to the cast since it’s premiere last year – leans too hard on the trash-talking vitriol, giving the piece an unvarying rage that doesn’t allow for an emotional arc.

That, however, is largely a quibble –  our sense is that the nurse’s mono-rancor will settle into more varying depths as the run continues.

Between the monologues, Saracho places brief choruses of prayer to Our Lady of the Underpass, of The Botanica that Also Sells Phone Cards, of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, of Affordable Duplexes and all the other causes the Virgin takes on as Fullerton Avenue becomes a shrine. The scenes play out on Brian Sidney Bembridge’s startlingly accurate replication of the underpass and the image on it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of flickering candles, graffiti and shimmering auras instill the piece with both a sense of mysticism and the harsh urban reality of disfigured concrete. No matter what you see as you gaze on the Underpass, Saracho’s story of its power is compelling.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

     

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