Monday, March 21, 2016

Review: If Music Be the Device of Love

Spoiler. This play ends in death too. But if you know what happens in Romeo and Juliet, this should come of no surprise. Playwright Laura Hirschberg takes the characters of The Bard's romance about star-crossed lovers and gives one of the supporting characters the spotlight in a reimagined prequel of sorts. Verona Walls, presented by The Workshop Theater, explores the love life of Romeo's bestie Mercutio in a place and time bending universe where anything is allowed, and apparently accepted.
photo by Gerry Goodstein
Romeo and Juliet is a classic and completely over-produced so finding a means to explore these characters in a new form is enticing. But deciding how to adapt this world and characters is integral. In Verona Walls, Hirschberg uses the oft fan favorite prequel device, only the style she incorporates is a conglomeration of periods, references, and dialogue that don't really compliment one another. Hirschberg sets the scene as Shakespeare's Verona but honestly, what is Shakespeare's Verona? According to this production it's modern but not entirely. It’s a Verona where The Beatles music drives the action and the boys, Romeo, Mercutio, and Ben(volio), find themselves lost in love. Since Romeo has his own play, focusing on the origin story of Mercutio is certainly exciting. What makes Mab’s man the person we know? The play begins before the beloved prologue and finds itself parallel to the action of the source material all the way up until Mercutio’s demise. This allows fans of the Bard to experience references and characters in an unfamiliar way. And believe me, everything in Verona Walls is unfamiliar. But the pool of characters Hirschberg can pull from is a limited. We get to see the odd juvenile foreplay between Romeo and the previously unseen Rosaline. But who pulls at Mercutio’s heartstrings? Rosaline’s cousin Alyssa. Alyssa? While it certainly lacks the Shakespearean name flare, in this world, Alyssa plays a Yoko Ohno type role, though it’s not entirely defined whether that’s influenced by the plethora of The Beatles music and references. After instant connection, the bad boy of love finds himself smitten with Alyssa, suddenly having a new outlook on life and love. The text is a blend of Shakespearean zingers and modern references to create a textual concoction that's hard to swallow. Interesting idea aside, the trouble with Verona Walls is the world in which it lives. When it appears confused, it becomes confusing to those watching. Abandoning time is a strong choice but it most be explored fully. Drawing back to period hurts the intent. It can be likened to “Bates Motel”. The TV series is a prequel reimagining of “Pyscho”  but rather than living in the time, the series is updated to present day. And it lives there fully. Hirschberg doesn’t quite do that. Simply by having moments of Shakespearean text and period-inspired costumes causes alarm.
The other big woe of the show is the integration of music. Director DeLisa M. White utilizes a “chorus” to sing at various points of the production, predominantly during transitions. It’s a strong choice that assists in covering up the monotony of constantly changing scenes with a sound cue. But it also causes a plethora of problems. From a staging perspective, White keeps the trio, one of which is strongly called “The Bard”, present on stage during the bar scenes, forcing them to engage in awkward stage whispers. With a tight space to work in, it pulls focus. Yes, the trio are strong singers and lighten up the mood but you have to wonder if it’s worth it. Can you sacrifice the live music so we’re not forced to watch uncomfortable silent acting that feels like community theater? And since we’re defying space and time anyway, maybe it would have been better to have a jukebox. It would have literally had the same effect. When it comes to song selection, consistency was not present. The Beatles soundtrack, which may only have been utilized to pander to a certain audience, was the main source of evocative music but Hirschberg then randomly sprinkled in songs that ranged from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Puddle of Mudd’s “She Hates Me”. And it was completely jarring. Surly there are enough songs from the Lennon-McCartney songbook that could have sufficed. Regardless, the way Hirschberg and White incorporated the music in took away from the heart of the piece, distracting the audience from the real problems. And with the play running a little over two hours, cutting the musical moments that don’t truly further the plot will be of great assistance. Though going in a completely different directions and turning Verona Walls into a jukebox musical could be another option. There was magic on stage when Alyssa broke out into Madonna.
Lifting Verona Walls from page to stage requires a vision. With a multitude of styles and periods existing, how DeLisa M. White presented the production ultimately led to the success of the piece. Verona Walls experienced some severe pacing problems. The script reads like a Hollywood romcom but seemed to play like an indie flick. The moments with boisterous physical comedy were exactly what the play needed. Yet when things got intimate, it took a severe turn that was a little less interesting. Balancing the comedy through the romance was important. White gave herself a very tight stage in which to have her actors move. The scenic design by Connor Munion was visually pleasing, and smartly intricate, but with so many actors with nowhere to go, it caused interactions to feel unnatural. Additionally, the consistency of White’s staging was a bit problematic. Mistress Quickly’s bar at first was established in a “V” formation with a table on the stage right side. Later on when there was a split scene, that very same table was moved to stage left only for the next scene to move it back to stage right. It’s a little in the grand scheme of things but you had to wonder why. The costumes by Kimberley Jean Windbiel was a mixed bag of styles. Between Romeo’s perfectly preppy aesthetic to the chorus trio looking like they just finished their shift at the local Ren Faire, Windbiel brought exactly what Hirschberg’s script asked for. And sadly, she fell victim to the trap.
photo by Gerry Goodstein
Despite the woes of the text, Verona Walls featured a capable company that was nothing short of entertaining. Ryan McCurdy took on the role of the man with rough exterior but a heart of gold in Mercutio. McCurdy’s ability to switch from tough guy to charmer on a dime proved his keen eye to character. While Mercutio’s goal was to woe the girl, McCurdy’s strongest scenes were with Jacob Owen’s Romeo. Mercutio and Romeo were the epitome of bromance. In this case it w as truly bros before hoes. Owen brought the beauty and lure we all know and love from Romeo but he also gave him a dimness. And it was quite funny. Owen captured the fool in love. Rounding out the boys, Mick Bleyer was the level-headed on of the bunch. But there was something odd when it came to the relationship between Ben and Mistress Quickly. It was a tad cougarish and lacked believability in this specific world. To no fault of her own, Alyssa was a tad boring of a character. Rachel Flynn tried to find any sparks she could within Alyssa. There were moments of strength, but in the end the focus remained on Mercutio.
There are some things you can forgive for the sake of art but the amount of questions Verona Walls causes makes you question the validity of the concept. Yes, it is entertaining and the company is efficient in bringing fun, but Verona Walls is problematic. You almost have to wonder if it's been worked into oblivion. Sometimes too much work can have the opposite affect.