Arizona Theatre Company's Romeo and Juliet Puts Style Before Passion at Herberger Theater

Arizona Theatre Company's Romeo and Juliet is a treat, but only for those who haven't already witnessed a previous parade of updated, restructured Shakespeare productions. And for those who don't care whether the Bard's verses are well-delivered or his young hero and heroine are nicely acted. Everyone else would do better to get thee to a movie house.

Set in swinging '60s Italy, this overlong, largely dreary Romeo and Juliet has in its favor nothing more than a pair of charming characterizations, neither of them Shakespeare's teen lovers. Director Kirsten Brandt has turned Old Will's "two hours traffic of our stage" into half again as much, yet made the whole shebang only half as engaging.

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Style, or at least an attempt at it, replaces passion in Brandt's production. David Lee Cuthbert's scenic design is essentially a 3-D blank backdrop for projected images, also designed by Cuthbert, each depicting a setting change -- a forest, a tomb, a teenage girl's bedroom -- but also occasionally disrupting the action with cheesy computer-generated imagery of giant hands touching or blood splatters during a fight sequence, for instance, each of which upstages the action onstage.

Brandt's live-action counterpart -- actors playing musical instruments onstage, and a seemingly endless parade of Vespa scooters (Look! A motorbike on a theater stage!) -- is equally off-putting and serves no purpose other than to further slow down an already inert production. Brandt does liven things up with a bit of gender-switching, casting Kathryn Tkel as Romeo's kindhearted cousin Benvolio and Leslie Law as the Prince. The playwright, one presumes, would have approved.

Law's performance as Juliet's nurse hits a high note. She gloms onto the potential comedy in each exit, each tossed-off aside, chewing them merrily to bits. Ensemble player Richard Baird appears to be the only actor cast for his ability to play Shakespeare. However he arrives on this makeshift Italianate stage, he owns it -- particularly as a swaggering, ultra-butch Mercutio, whose Queen Mab speech he transforms into poetry.

Both of our star-crossed lovers, on the other hand, possess an undersized talent for reciting Shakespearean verse. Paul David Story's languid, lovesick Romeo is the stuff of college theater. And while it's plain, at least, why Story's Romeo Lite might fall for pretty Chelsea Kurtz's Juliet, iambic pentameter is beyond this young actress, who appears to have been directed to read Juliet's verse with casual, modern-day rhythms. Wherefore art thou, indeed.

To be fair, I'm exhausted by contemporized, deconstructed Shakespeare, having seen my share of it (and yours!) over the years. This ATC production is an expensive one that stretches into three hours and decimates all those nice puns about maidenheads and clever speeches about love's infelicities. When Romeo pleaded, "Give me my sin again!" I shouted (in my head, anyway), "No, don't! Maybe he'll go away and we can go home!"

Romeo and Juliet continues through Sunday, April 12, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe St. Call 602-256-6899 or visit

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela