According to the Arizona Shakespeare Festival's production of Romeo and Juliet, Verona was full of crazy people who screamed a lot, mugged outrageously, told jokes and fell on the ground.

Of course the title couple lived there as well, and they tried to go about their forbidden love affair, in last Thursday night's performance at the Mesa Amphitheatre, as best they could amidst the incessant slapstick comedy. But their attraction to each other wasn't very compelling until it turned fatal, and the others traded shrieking and laughing for weeping and wailing. The poetry at the balcony, needless to say, didn't have much of a chance in a production that valued ribaldry and swordplay over the expression of young love.

Those who produce Shakespeare these days apparently fear the audience won't get it. Director Kevin Dressler had his actors make their gestures so broad the meaning of the words became secondary to getting a laugh. If the audience laughs, he must have figured, maybe they won't mind obscure words and allusions. Both Randy Messersmith as Mercutio and Lolly Foy as the Nurse were fine comic actors, but overstated their characters so much they relegated the love story to a secondary plot. In fact, Messersmith's Mercutio was so much more magnetic than Romeo that the play never recovered after his death.

As Romeo pines away for his Juliet, he's supposed to be funny in a lovelorn way, but Steve Biernacki couldn't convey much of anything while servants tripped and screamed, warring Montagues and Capulets waved swords and the fevered pitch of everything ground on in a boring sameness. When Romeo turns avenger and murders Tybalt, his character seems incapable of such violence. The transition to the play's tragic second half was never successful because the focus of the play had never really been on the love story. The only character who seemed remotely realistic was Juliet, played by Maria Amorocho. She held back enough in the earlier scenes so her speech before she takes the sleeping potion gave a glimpse of what the play was really about--frantic lovers who will do anything to remain together. Her lines were a joy to listen to after an evening of bombast and overacting.

When Romeo and Juliet have both committed suicide and it's time for the emotional payoff, the Montagues and Capulets have a hard time figuring out what has happened because they never took the situation seriously in the first place.

Neither did this production. Instead, it reduced Romeo and Juliet to a Renaissance Faire of colorful characters with pretty costumes and waving swords.

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Kathleen Ellison