No Great Shakespeare

Beck Center's Romeo and Juliet could be served up for Thanksgiving.

Romeo and Juliet. Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood. 216-521-2540. Through November 14.
Three the Bard way: Gregory Willey, Dana Hart, and Kristi Little.
Three the Bard way: Gregory Willey, Dana Hart, and Kristi Little.
Somebody needs to call an ambulance to tend to the wounded performers of Beck Center's traumatized Romeo and Juliet. They've been impaled between the Renaissance daintiness of Zeffirelli's 1968 film and the funkiness of Baz Luhrmann's postmodern Miami free-for-all 1996 movie. The evening leaves no victors, just a few tenuous survivors.

Director Shelley Butler instills this turkey of a production with cast-iron confidence. The bawdy allusions and Elizabethan odes ring out sharp and clear (a major accomplishment in itself), yet for the most part, they tend to be as lifeless as carved-in-granite elegies.

If, somehow, you missed all the film versions, skipped English class in high school, and never had an opportunity to snap your fingers to Leonard Bernstein's syncopated gangs, there is a slight chance that you might find this production captivating.

At Beck, unfortunately, is the fruit of an unhappy union between an avant-garde director and a conservative mom and pop theater. Director Butler is too much of a firebrand in the making to settle for an Old Vic tea-and-scones bard. Her battle cry in the press kit is to bestow an evening "accessible and relevant to contemporary audiences"; this, of course, translates as multiculturalism gone wild, peppered with lots of attitude. Hence, Juliet and her family are, presto-chango, Nubians residing in old Verona, with Kristi Little's Juliet a vivacious, pubescent, Brandy-like teen idol, all lollipop vitality and doe eyes full of wonder and hidden contentiousness.

In the evening's oddest bit of casting, Jerome Anderson's Paris, the supposed good-guy suitor, seems rather menacing, as though he should be forcing trembling sailor boys to walk the plank on a pirate ship. Anthony Nickerson's Lord Capulet seems out of place, too hip to deal with these Elizabethan squares and acting like he wants to run off and form a jazz band. As the one consistently lit fuse, Rasheryl McCreary's nurse spits and sputters, and is constantly on the verge of popping or exploding, enlivening the play with her energizing performance.

In contrast, but never in sync with the Capulets' urban danger, the Montagues and cohorts are in poor tribute to Zeffirelli's vision: wan, neurotic courtiers out of a paint-by-numbers Pre-Raphaelite painting. Gregory Willey's Romeo is pure tapioca pudding -- innocuous and sticky-sweet. In the exquisite 1936 film version, John Barrymore turned Mercutio into a magnificently dissipated peacock; Jimmy Helms reduces him to a moonstruck hummingbird. Dana Hart's Friar Lawrence calms the production's chaos with manly vigor.

Butler may be desperately attempting to throw in her two cents' worth to the cause of universal tolerance, but she is sabotaged by a production that has the aura of that immortal kitsch painting of dogs playing poker. Don McBride's anemic Renaissance sets and Naima Leone Hadden's peculiar, pajama-like period costumes look as though they'd be more appropriate in a revival of Auntie Mame.

There is little verve and much foolishness in the ill-assorted mix and match of styles. With so much talk of love, one might have hoped for some degree of passion or sentiment to be conveyed to the audience. As it is, nothing induced our imaginations to soar any higher than a tattered comic book forlornly blown down Detroit Avenue by an ill-favored wind.

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