Shakespeare runs in cycles.
It seems that one of his plays finds favor each year and surfaces in multiples. Last year it was "The Merchant of Venice." This year it's "Romeo and Juliet." So far the Los Angeles area has seen an all-woman edition and a souped-up, modern version, with motorcycles, yarmulkes and convertible Caddies on the CBS back-lot in Studio City (where it continues).
Now comes, of all things, a straightforward, straight-arrow, traditional staging by, of all companies, Shakespeare Festival/L.A.
Detect a level of surprise? That's because last year this company mounted a very un traditional, non -straightforward "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It was set in post-riot Los Angeles, with a cutout of Los Angeles City Hall dominating a graffiti-marred landscape while the "wood" outside town was represented by the fallen last four letters of the Hollywood Sign.
A clever stunt, yes, but encased in a fine production too. The traditionalism of this year's "Romeo and Juliet" at the John Anson Ford Theatre in Hollywood is a reasonable reaction to last year. What do you do for an encore? Traditional, after all, is not a four-letter word.
So what's the problem? Wattage, for starters. Michael Gilliam's lighting is devoted to focusing brightly on the action, whether it's happening in the middle of the night or the Capulet crypt.
Second, designer Fred M. Duer, who provided last year's imaginative setting, has gone the other way. He's delivered a bare-bones, multipurpose assemblage of wooden flats connected by a kind of poor man's Bridge of Sighs. This aerial passageway serves as expediently for the play's balcony scene as it does for the morning-after-the-wedding scene.
Reality check: Would the banished, secretly married Romeo want to stand unabashedly exposed while debating if the bird he hears is the nightingale or the lark?
These are choices, but clearly not helpful ones. Director Kristoffer Tabori makes others along the way that are less questionable. His Lord and Lady Capulet (the commanding Ryan Cutrona and a cattily frivolous Joan Stuart Morris) are sufficiently cold and even violent to signal a family that carries grudges, sustains feuds and would spawn as vain and arrogant a young man as the smoldering Tybalt of Luis Antonio Ramos.
The casting of Montague (Bob Sullivan) and Lady Montague (Allyson Rees Stevens), however, is less persuasive, and while Patrick Roman's performance as Benvolio is perfectly credible, he is so much older than his friends that one wonders why he hangs around with them. Or why he was cast.
Among these friends, Jay Karnes' Mercutio is the most memorable. As bright and mercurial as his name implies, Karnes shines where others merely glow. And Randy Kovitz's breathless staging of the fight scene with Tybalt only heightens the exuberance and, ultimately, the sense of loss.
Robert Duncan McNeill's boyish Romeo is almost as appealing (an achievement, since the role itself is so much less spectacular). He is, however, not aided by his Juliet, a perpetually anguished Megan Porter Follows. Anguish is fine for the end, but where's the rush of first love? The joy? The playfulness?
She has the perfect foil in Sheelagh Cullen's fond, effusive Nurse. Cullen's warmth has obviously supplanted Lady Capulet's coolness in the care and feeding of this Juliet. But Follows doesn't follow through. She delivers a well-spoken text with a lump in the throat that forms entirely too soon.
George Ede's bumbling Friar Laurence is a bit too predictable, but when Michael Keys Hall's Prince Escalus issues an edict, you believe it. Ultimately, however, this erratic casting, the strange choices and curious scenery hurt the production.
No one can doubt that Shakespeare Festival/L.A., now in its eighth season, is a dedicated provider of free Shakespeare. Producing director Ben Donenberg has been uncommonly skilled at deriving community support, enlarging his audiences and raising the quality of his productions. For the first time this year, a second show is being added: a paid-admission engagement of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" July 29-Aug. 8 at South Coast Botanic Garden near Rolling Hills Estates. The bywords are still onward and upward. But this "Romeo and Juliet" is, if not a step back, at least a step sideways.
* "Romeo and Juliet," John Anson Ford Theatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Wednesday-Sunday, 8:30 p.m. Ends July 25. Free tickets available at Ticketmaster outlets; the audience is encouraged to bring to the theater a donation of canned food for the needy; (213) 623-9224--information only. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.
Robert Duncan McNeill: Romeo
Megan Porter Follows: Juliet
Ryan Cutrona: Capulet
Joan Stuart Morris: Lady Capulet
Bob Sullivan: Montague/Apothecary
Allyson Rees Stevens: Lady Montague
Sheelagh Cullen: Nurse
George Ede: Friar Laurence
Jay Karnes: Mercutio
Luis Antonio Ramos: Tybalt
Patrick Roman: Benvolio
Matthew Wagner: Paris
Michael Keys Hall: Prince Escalus
Greg Fitzpatrick: Balthasar
Eighth Shakespeare Festival/L.A. presentation. Producing director Benjamin Donenberg. Associate director Janice Steele. Director Kristoffer Tabori. Sets Fred M. Duer. Lights Michael Gilliam. Costumes Todd Roehrman. Sound Denny McLane. Composer Ross Levinson. Choreographer Gui Andrisano. Fight director Randy Kovitz. Textual exposition Diana Maddox. Technical director Hap Lawrence. Production manager Eileen D. Thomas. Stage manager Crys Forsyth-Smith.