Monday, July 25, 2005


Clint Okayama and Michelle O'Malley are Romeo and Juliet in the current production at the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival.

Star-crossed lovers’
story shines bright

Tony Pisculli has been consistently successful in approaching Shakespeare with imaginative insights while still staying true to the material. Pisculli does it again with his direction of "Romeo and Juliet" for the 2005 Hawaii Shakespeare Festival. Two unconventional casting choices work perfectly. Most of his other choices work well, too.

"Romeo and Juliet"

Presented by the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival at Ernst Lab Theatre, University of Hawaii-Manoa, continues at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $18, with discounts for students, seniors, military and groups. Call 550-8457 or visit the Web site www.hawaiishakes.com.

Marissa Robello dominates several scenes as Juliet's fiery cousin. Whoever said the female is deadlier than the male would find proof here as Pisculli's ultra-feminine Tybalt smolders with barely suppressed sexual rage. Robello plays her as a petite and beautiful swordswoman driven to prove that she's as lethal as the swaggering men around her. Robello played Mercutio in Troy Apostol's memorable "Femme Capulet" in February, and she builds on that performance here.

John Robert Watson captures the character of Juliet's loyal nurse so well that after a while his gender no longer registers. It's rare to see a male play a female in a local production without the director going for lame sophomoric "boys will be girls" comedy, but Pisculli and Watson have far more finesse. Watson avoids the stereotypical "mahu" affectations, playing the role as it might have been done back when women were banned from the stage.

Michelle O'Malley, who proves an outstanding Juliet, successfully negotiates every emotional twist and turn in the well-known love story. O'Malley does a masterful job with Juliet's metamorphosis from virginal innocence to womanhood. Her command of the dialogue brings Shakespeare's glorious writing to life as well.

O'Malley's success is enhanced by the fact that she looks like a child next to the rest of the cast. Although the timbre of her voice suggests that she's older than she looks, she wears the character of the blossoming child-woman like a second skin.

Clint Okayama has less success as Romeo. The role is complicated, given that Romeo is far more immature and emotionally unstable than he first seems to be, and the actor who plays him must incorporate those negatives as well as all the romance of the situation. Okayama is hit or miss -- he's a serviceable romantic lead in some scenes, a bit of a mush-mouth in others.

Troy Apostol (Mercutio), back on stage after directing "Femme Capulet" in February, gives a powerful, multilayered performance. He quickly establishes Mercutio as a boisterous, belligerent loose cannon on the streets of Verona. He then brings out the swordsman's philosophical side with his compelling delivery of Mercutio's key monologues.

Toward the end, however, Apostol's facial expressions suggest that Mercutio is feeling uneasy about something. Perhaps Mercutio has come to doubt the wisdom of further street brawling with the Capulets. Maybe he has a premonition of his fate.

Scott Hartman presents the pivotal character of Friar Laurance as a man of strength, dignity and humanity. Some have seen "Romeo and Juliet" as including a veiled attack on the Catholic Church, but in the context of Pisculli's production, Friar Laurance emerges as a hero, albeit one who seems to have grave reservations about the lovers' future.

Shen Sugai (Lord Capulet), another veteran of "Femme Capulet," is convincing throughout as Juliet's well-intentioned but inflexible father. Laura Bach Buzzell (Lady Capulet) allows the audience to weigh the irony as Juliet's mother argues that 14 is not too young to marry.

Chesley Cannon (Paris) brings interesting nuances to the story as the nobleman Juliet's parents want her to marry. At first it seems that Cannon is playing Paris conventionally as either a wealthy fop or a callow opportunist -- in either case, obviously inferior to Romeo. But as the story progresses there are hints that Paris might actually be basically decent and could have made a good husband.

Director Pisculli adds an odd but thought-provoking twist by having Romeo strangle Tybalt rather than stab her during a sudden brawl. Strangling can't be "an accident." Instead, it suggests malice and a capacity for brutality. Prince Escalus (Ryan I. Sueoka) has already banned further street brawling on pain of death, but Romeo kills Tybalt anyway. What kind of a gentleman would do that, given the circumstances?

Jabez Armadia (Benvolio) adds an energetic performance despite an unconventional hairdo that brings to mind the head of a large lizard. John Robert Watson (Peter) adds subtle comic bits to several scenes.

The percussionists of the Damned Spot Drums have provided a live musical component to Pisculli's annual Shakespeare productions for three years. The trio repays Pisculli for the opportunity this year with consistently effective work enhancing the dramatic impact of the actors' work.

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