Shake and Not Stirred

The plot fares better than Shakespeare's verse, however, as the young actors stumble over the Elizabethan dialogue, often causing puns to fall flat and malapropisms to be mangled. Costuming and make-up oversights result in other problems. For instance, county justice Shallow (Bill Battaglia) proclaims, "I have lived four score years and upward," although you'd never guess his eighty-something years from his youthful face and full head of dark hair. But that's nothing compared to what has become of Falstaff. Describing himself as "in the waist two yards about," Barry pats an unpadded costume that covers a stomach that looks as if it endures regular ab workouts. Given that all the dialogue regarding his great girth remains intact, this fat-free Falstaff cannot be attributed to a new interpretation. (Besides bordering on sacrilege, a thin Falstaff is comedically unsound -- imagine Stan Laurel playing Oliver Hardy's part.) Nor does Barry replace Falstaff's lost pounds with any dramatic weight. His nondescript performance turns the man who dared corrupt a king into a Civil War version of Colonel Klink from Hogan's Heroes. The complexity of Shakespeare's characters and the majesty of his poetry also get short shrift in the festival's production of Romeo and Juliet (1596). For the benefit of those who can't remember their ninth-grade English classes, fourteen-year-old Juliet (Finnerty Steeves) falls in love with Romeo (Cory Baker), the son of her family's archenemies. Shortly after secretly marrying Juliet, Romeo is banished from their Italian hometown of Verona, leading the young couple to pursue a desperate course of action that ultimately brings about, uh, tragedy.

Director Amy London's trimming of the script -- she deletes Juliet's would-be husband Paris's (Bill Battaglia) fatal trip to her tomb -- keeps the production's focus squarely on the passions of the star-crossed lovers, and Baker and Steeves's giddily hormone-charged balcony scene is a treat. In this age in which teenage girls give birth in secret, a production that underscores the intense fervor of adolescent love and its sometimes horrifying aftermath invests the old classic with new relevance. On the other hand, London's slant and her additional minor cuts create a kind of Verona 90210, and the youthful glow that infuses the production doesn't burn hot enough to stoke its dramatic fires. Thundering with self-pity and falling to the stage in tantrums of denied pleasures, the title characters come across like pampered rich kids, furious over not getting their way.

As the love story moves from mythic toward melodramatic, the minor characters strike the deepest emotional chord. Director-turned-actor Matthew Regan creates a sympathetic Friar Laurence, his well-meaning efforts to help the lovers ultimately turning to heartsick alarm. Similarly, Nell Gwynn and G. Michael McKay replace the usual cold tyranny of Juliet's parents with an understandable can't-reason-with-teenagers exasperation.

The cast, which performs the roles in both plays on alternating nights, once again has trouble finding the meaning and the meter of Shakespeare's verse, something that's even more apparent absent the camouflage of Merry Wives's slapstick. Still, like Regan, London keeps things moving too fast for this Romeo and Juliet's inadequacies to become overwhelming liabilities. Both productions get a boost from their single set (designed by Regan): Uncluttered with furniture, its five exits allow a continuous dramatic flow in front of a painted back wall (designed by David Mah) of rolling green lawns and stately columns. Likewise, Angela Thomas's delightful period costumes for both plays and John Manzelli's impressively realistic and fluid fight choreography in Romeo and Juliet lend a professional air.

The only South Florida company regularly producing the Bard, Florida Playwrights' Theatre has now presented ten of his plays. While the current festival won't satisfy Shakespeare purists, these spirited and accessible offerings should entertain the unversed.

The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Matthew Regan; with Len Barry, Nell Gwynn, and Miriam Kulick.

Romeo and Juliet.
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Amy London; with Cory Baker and Finnerty Steeves. Through September 14. For more information call 954-925-8123 or see "Calendar Listings.

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