Here’s the inevitable challenge with Romeo and Juliet: finding actors who are talented enough to bring gravitas to the roles of the doomed lovers and yet young enough to convincingly portray them.
Milwaukee’s Off the Wall Theatre simply throws that second requirement out the window. In Dale Gutzman’s new production of the Shakespearean tragedy, he and frequent collaborator Marilyn White — both of them retirement age —play the lovestruck children of Montague and Capulet. Gutzman steers into this curve by setting the performance within the framing device of a 1960s Italian nursing home for former actors. It’s the perfect setup, with enough of a knowing wink to suspend disbelief (and, to sweeten the deal, actual sweets are divvied out by ushers before the show opens).
But the setup is hardly necessary, given how effectively Gutzman and White slip into their roles. From the moment he saunters on stage in a black hoodie and oval-shades, Gutzman is a swaggering, surly young man, raunchy with his companions but moody in his passion for soon-to-be-forgotten Rosaline. White is a wisp of a near-14-year-old girl, giggling and capering about in an oversized shirt and more often barefoot than slippered. In their passion for each other, they are equally matched as well, balancing their hasty, youthful folly with an equally youthful ardor that dares us to chastise them for it.
Heightened emotion of all kind is the name of the game here. Rage simmers beneath the surface of these Italians, boiling over with Tybalt (Max Williamson) first and more impressively when Juliet’s father (Tairre Christopherson) and mother (Donna Lobacz) lash out at her for trying to evade her marriage contract with Paris (Robert Preston). Even Friar Lawrence (Jeremy C. Welter) has a moment of screaming frustration, when Romeo reveals he has transferred his affections to Juliet.
The production is also lustier than might be expecte. Benvolio (Nathan Danzer), Mercutio (Jason Will) and Romeo cavort like horny frat boys. Shakespeare’s double entendres are taken out and stretched to full length. Also in on the action is Juliet’s Nurse, played by David Flores, a casting coup that brings a saucy but never-cartoonish sensibility to the role. In fact, he and Will are the most capable of the supporting cast members at playing both the serious and comic elements of their roles.
Will’s Mercutio moves at whiplash speed from comic to serious — as madly mercurial as his name suggests. Flores does the opposite, letting the events of the play slowly sober his bawdy Nurse, paving this way for a most heartrending wail when he finds Juliet dead.
As usual, Gutzman makes Off the Wall’s small space work better than could be imagined. Upon entry, you’re enveloped by the nursing home. Once the play begins, the action is constantly in your face, which makes the recurring fight scenes as frightening as they are captivating.
One of the production’s few missteps was to pipe in musical accompaniment. Gutzman and company have unfortunately scored Romeo and Juliet’s moments of romance with schmaltzy, Lifetime movie orchestration — a manipulative tug at the heartstrings. And sometimes music swells in a scene that’s better suited for silence.
Gutzman, White and their fellow actors do just fine by themselves.
Romeo and Juliet continues at Off the Wall Theatre, 127 E. Wells St., Milwaukee, through April 6. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. on most nights and 4:30 p.m. on Sundays. The theater seats only 35, and several evenings have already sold out, so reservations are recommended. Tickets are $25. Call 414-484-8874 or visit offthewalltheatre.com.