STAR-CROSS'D LOVERS Karin Baard as Juliet
and Nate Houran as Romeo in Fenix's production.
Open-air, no-frills Shakespeare, performed by the Fenix Theatre Co. in various landscapes of Deering Oaks Park, has become a summer institution in Portland. This year, picnickers gather on the slope around an emptied reflecting pool for a scrappy, street-tough Romeo and Juliet, whose intemperate young people inhabit a Verona that's both primal and a world we know on sight.
No period tragedy is this R&J. Director Rob Cameron garbs his cast in casual modern dress that, for the teenagers, is street without making a big deal about it: these kids wear cutoffs, hoodies, and, in the case of brave Ian Carlsen's Mercutio, shorts sagging halfway down the ass. Their clowning and brawling take the same cues; Mercutio razzes his buddies Benvolio (Michael Dix Thomas) and Romeo (Nate Houran) with a hip-hop swagger and ass slaps, and all three fight their rival Tybalt (Matt Delamater, fearsome and ripped in his modified track suit) with dirty, brutal efficiency (Sally Wood's fight choreography is excellent). While a simple, timeless drumming (performed by Maxwell Aranson) paces much of the play's action, cell phones are also in wide evidence.
In fact, it's by way of a photo on a cell phone that Juliet (Karin Baard) is first introduced to her intended husband, the straitlaced Paris (Sean Ramey) by her mom, Karen Ball's peevish, cigarette-smoking Lady Capulet, in a low-cut black pantsuit. Does Juliet think she can love him?, nags Lady C., impatiently holding up the phone from halfway across the staging area. That's one of a number of nice touches in coloring this R&J's world. The Capulets embody Italian heritage à laJersey Shore, with Peter Brown's boorish Lord C. in an open shirt, wife-beater, and plenty of gold, while the famous apothecary of Hawaiian-shirted Friar Laurence (an entertaining David Butler) includes his own recreational pills to crush and snort.
Playing the leads, Houran and Baard — newcomers to the Portland theater scene — are fluent with the language and its frequent humor, and have an appealing wholesomeness. They seem like nice, level-headed kids who might otherwise get into good schools and escape all these atavistic grudges. This characteristic adds to their tragedy, but what I miss in the lovers is the impulsive, visceral paroxysm of Juliet and Romeo's sudden love. This love isn't level-headed; it's instant, wild, and utterly instinctual. But Houran and Baard's first moment together, though paced with some lovely gestures that are half-dance, half-seduction, is more tender than fervent. (And the scene's blocking doesn't help its impact, happening as it does in an aisle in the middle of the audience, out of some sightlines, while the rest of the party rocks out to drumming down in the pool.) I believe in the love between these two kids, but I also need to believe in their irrational, ecstatic desire.