Closely Held Characters Hobble Funny But Uneven ‘Romeo, Romeo & Juliet’

In the strictest Shakespearean sense, Simon (Brian Mackey, above) and Tracy (Michael Silberblatt) are strange bedfellows indeed. Photos by Daren Scott.

Crazy ol’ Juliet must have jump-started more than Romeo’s exploding heart when William Shakespeare had her sweetly declare that “You kiss by th’ book.” The world’s most memorable young lover is pretty good — he’s apparently studied kissing’s ins and outs to arrive at the formula for the definitive buss, fueling Juliet’s innate sense of humor (that line is one of the funniest in the script).

What’s cooler is that the pair are so unlikely to begin with. Juliet’s high-end Capulet kin have it in for Romeo’s down-market Montagues, and except for the kids’ star-crossed romance, the twain would meet in the netherworlds for which both families were so richly destined.

All that stuff is what makes the children’s deaths so tragic, as we’re eye-openingly reminded at the climax of the Roustabouts Theatre Co.’s Romeo, Romeo & Juliet, playwright and company co-founder Ruff Yeager’s world-premiere send-up rehearsal of one of the humanities’ most popular romantic tragedies.

Indeed, the show’s end is a minor stroke of genius, with Yeager switching takes on a dime in homage to Bill’s consummate brilliance.

While the road to the conclusion also has its moments, the show’s characters suffer from a certain myopia, in an almost argumentative antithesis to Bill’s stated intent. The piece is certainly worth seeing amid the cast’s high-jinks physicality and sense of ensemble — but a little less infighting would broaden the characters in the manner of the master, inciting the spoofy look and feel to the level the play deserves.

We’re privy to a Cape Cod summer stock rehearsal room, a reasonable distance from the Great White Way in every respect except in the actors’ minds. Simon’s dubious task centers on the direction of Romeo and Juliet with Tracy and Nancy as his principals — the trio’s high-strung MOs are recipes for disaster, especially when third wheel Simon unwittingly steps in as Tracy’s love interest.

It’s a low-level sex farce come to call, and director Kim Strassburger has typecast her players with excellent regard for the histrionics the roles require.

Juliet (Michelle Marie Trester) needs a breather, preferably with a fresh can of Sprite.

Bill wrote the 1597 play with Juliet turning 14 in a couple weeks; Romeo’s age is never given, but experts put him anywhere from 16 to his early 20s. Tracy and Nancy are obviously out of range — but we’re talking summer stock here, wherein such venues devote themselves to leisurely public pursuits rather than cryptic theater history. Yeager mines his characters accordingly, and the age gaps here add a wry lopsidedness to his ideas.

But while Shakespeare’s characters are some of the most expansive in centuries of memory, Yeager’s people can’t seem to unveil themselves in the same light, to wit: Ditzy Mormon Nancy claims that Sprite calms her nerves and that her dad entrusts his car care exclusively to Jiffy-Lube; smooth Tracy is a dyed-in-the-wool gay cad and is as subject to the usual morning-after discomforts as the rest of us; and of course, it’s all about Simon, God’s gift to Cape Cod summer stock and cursed with a bluster of clay and a dandelion’s ego.

Their clashes are funny and ironic and wonderfully animated — but because these three are legends in their own minds, the skirmishes miss the point, obfuscating the broader Shakespearean blueprint. If you’re gonna find humor in rehearsal of tragic Shakespeare, that’s fine; but follow his lead and draw the characters big and worldly and bold accordingly, like you do at the terrific end of this piece.

You know what they say about imitation, after all.

Meanwhile, ask Michelle Marie Trester about the correct pronunciation of “Montague” — her befuddled Nancy asserts she can get it right, but not after some prodding from Simon, whom Brian Mackey gives some letter-perfect vocalisms and bursts of temperament. Michael Silberblatt’s Tracy has piercing dark eyes, and he’s used them to his advantage in his walk through life. Of the three, he would likely note success on the legitimate stage, but that doesn’t make him any less an ass-hat. Nice energy all around.

Juliet (Michelle Marie Trester) bids adieu to her Romeo (Michael Silberblatt), whose next voyage is under way.

The program doesn’t list a scene designer, and that makes his/her identity as much a mystery as the ideas behind the set (we learn only that the locale is a “rehearsal room” without a hint as to the nature of that space, save the indiscriminate clutter). Yeager’s sound, Curtis Mueller’s lights and Jordyn Smiley’s costumes are straightforward and uniform in their intent.

If Bill were alive today, he’d be astonished at the extent of his adulation the world over. He’s the undisputed poor man’s man of letters, even as he uneventfully left school at 15 and his acting road trips often took him away from his wife and three kids. His nondescript grit of day yielded one of the elite philosophers in 25 centuries of stagecraft — similarly, Romeo, Romeo & Juliet, funny as it may be, could take a lesson.

This review is based on the opening-night performance of June 22. Romeo, Romeo & Juliet runs through July 8 at MOXIE Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. in the College Area. $38., 619-728-7870.

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