ROMEO & JULIET – A Review

12 Feb

Dominic Walsh Dance Theater With Mercury Baroque 

By JOHN DeMERS

In the realm of visual arts, works described as “mixed media” or “multi-media” hang in virtually every museum and gallery on earth. Thus you have sculptures that are painted on, as well as paintings that sprout bits of sculpture – and these days, you certainly have either (or both) built around video monitors or featuring a flat surface for projections. Still, while certain collaborations have been a part of the performing arts forever, “multi-media” partnerships like the current Romeo & Juliet by Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and Mercury Baroque are few and far between. 

For one thing, such pieces don’t exactly exist. 

In order for the performance now at the Wortham through the weekend to become a reality, Walsh had to scrap just about everything ballet had in storage or memory for the tragic romance, including the familiar (terrific) Prokofiev score. And Mercury Baroque artistic director Antoine Plante had to gather what sounded like a hundred snippets from Vivaldi (including a few bits for solo and choral voices) and weave them into the stuff that star-crossed dreams are made on. The result, a shape-shifting fusion of Shakespearean acting, Baroque singing and of course passionate, muscular Walshian dancing, filled the stage opening night in a way that also filled the hearts of anyone fortunate enough to be in the audience. 

Mercury Baroque’s conductor and his 16 musicians are probably the unsung (though in another sense, most obvious) heroes of the evening. After coming up with the music in the first place, Plante and Co. keep a lively but responsive beat throughout the evening, ever ready to follow the baton, which in turn can follow the dancers, singers, actors and anything else onstage. 

This seems especially crucial in times when the worlds collide: say, when dancing gives way to aria, whether sung by baritone Gabriel Preisser as Lord Capulet, Juliet’s father, or even better, by Mercury Baroque regular Ana Trevino-Godrey as the young lady’s Nurse. Things really get complicated when there’s dancing, singing and acting going on, including the intricate, even delicate harmonies of Vivaldi performed by the Bach Choir of Houston. Throw in some sword fights expertly crafted by Brian Byrnes and somebody had better play traffic cop here. Plante apparently looks pretty good in a badge.

The second big hero of this Romeo & Juliet must be the simple but eye-catching set designed by Jorge Ballina with lighting by Robert Eubanks, which relies almost entirely on a large suspended wooden square with hanging drapes of varying densities. This square can be lowered to the ground to all but disappear, be raised on a horizontal plane so the drapes create a house or room, or be tilted forward (most impressively, to let Juliet climb down from her famous balcony and dance a pas de deux with Romeo) or backward (as when it suggests a window that’s more of a gaping mouth through which the banished Romeo sneaks to spend his wedding night). The latter scene is replete with cruel “jaws of fate” imagery, especially since almost everyone on earth knows what’s to come. 

Walsh takes many liberties with the story, but none that undermines its heartbreak – and, sidestepping one of his demonstrated weaknesses, none that seeks to shock merely for shock’s sake. There is certainly some modernity on this stage, including a few emotional and visual links to Baz Luhrmann’s film, in which the feuding Verona families emerge as urban street gangs. But the most substantive change here is having Lady Capulet (powerfully danced by Rachel Meyer) be sexually involved with her presumably younger nephew Tybalt. In plot terms, Shakespeare would have known this only gets in the way – but in dance terms, it gives the usually lost-in-the-wallpaper mother a change for strong, seductive dancing with DWDT stalwart Domenico Luciano. This kind of couples work (think man and woman climbing up and down each other’s bodies like parallel elevators) is one of Walsh’s greatest strengths, as we saw recently in his rethinking of The Firebird. We generally don’t want that much rethinking of Romeo & Juliet – and gratefully, in this wonderful new/old production, we don’t get it. 

Some excellent acting is delivered by Adam Van Wagoner as Paris, the Capulet’s chosen husband for their daughter, and particularly by Jim Johnson as Friar Lawrence, a role he played the last time Walsh tried his hand at this story. Still, the DWDT dancers prove themselves no slouches in the acting department, trading Shakespearean lines with the non-dancing actors in between their dynamic solos. Randolph Ward serves up a wonderful, fun-until-he’s-dead Mercutio, while Ty Parmenter and Felicia McBride are utterly believable as the young lovers. Their many duets, most touchingly their early scenes inspired by the Bard’s best-ever pickup line “Let lips do what hands do,” are nothing short of contemporary ballet perfection.      

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