A Director (or Two) with a Concept

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There’s something inherently strange about sitting in a darkened concert hall in the middle of a beautiful spring weekday afternoon with 2,000 other people. But that’s just what this Spoletobuzz blogger found himself doing on Memorial Day yesterday, squirming around in a too-small Gaillard Auditorium seat at 2 p.m., looking around and marveling at the kinds of people who would choose to leave the holiday pleasures of barbecue, beer, and sun for a gloomy, three-and-a-half-hour performance set in a mortuary that leaves most of its main characters dead.

It’s an accepted truth that matinees are mostly for seniors, and scanning the audience at the festival’s second performance of Roméo et Juliette, I realized there a good reason it’s an accepted truth. With some infrequent exceptions, I felt like I was crashing an AARP convention. I kept expecting Wilford Brimley to enter the stage on a horse at any moment and make a pitch for Liberty Medical. That’s not all due to the fact that it was a matinée performance, of course. There’s also the simple fact that the festival’s audiences skew silver. And it’s not limited to Spoleto. On Sunday, at a standing-room-only 5 p.m. performance of Rode Hard and Put Away Wet at Theatre 99’s Piccolo Fringe, there was enough gray hair to keep Naturtint in business for a week. Having been to dozens of shows at Theatre 99 since it opened last fall, I can say for certain it was the oldest crowd I’d ever seen there. And judging from the looks on their faces on the way out, it had been some time since many of them heard the C word. Especially in combination with the F word and the P word.

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But back to Roméo et Juliette. It occurred to me that only two years ago Spoleto gave us an opera based on pretty much the exact same story in not too diferent of a setting. In 2004 director Paul Curran produced I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Vincenzo Bellini’s 1830 opera, at the Sottile Theatre (see right). In that version, the story of the feuding Montague and Capulet familes was dropped into a Sopranos-style mob setting. You’ve surely heard by now that in co-directors Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil’s version this year, the tale of the doomed lovers is set in a funeral home owned by Juliette’s family. It was heavily promoted by festival organizers as Six Feet Under meets R&J. My question is this: what exactly is Spoleto’s obsession with HBO? Sure, I love Sunday nights with Rome and Tony Soprano as much as the next guy, but what are we going to see next year? A Wild West La Boheme where Deadwood meets Puccini? (You heard it here first).

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It’s hard not to be captivated by Romeo and Juliette’s remarkable set design, though. The updated, modern setting works wonderfully, and sometimes you just want to take a picture, it’s so damn beautiful. That’s as much a credit to the costume design as it is to the set design. For the balcony scene, a huge wall slides across the stage out of what was previously the stage left wall. Walking along the top behind a giant latticed window, dressed in a delicate white nightgown, Juliette (a radiant Nicole Cabelle Nicole Cabelle) lights a wall of candles while Romeo (Frederic Antoun), outfitted in a modishly-stylish all-pink suit, scales the exterior and pins her with a kiss. When the Montague thugs suspect an intruder, a black-suited, earbud-wearing security detail enters waving flashlights whose beams stab every which way through the darkened auditorium. Afterward, for the beginning of Act Two, the lower section of the balcony wall slides away to reveal Friar Laurent’s quarters in the morgue’s medical lab, where x-rays line the walls and beakers of luminiscent green goo lie about. The end of Act Two takes place at the funeral home’s service entrace, where an actual hearse is parked amid a scattering of trash bins and an overall-clad cleaning crew. In the final scene before the intermission, a drizzle of rain falls on the gathered hoodlums as first Mercutio and then Tybalt are murdered. The scene ends with a soaked Romeo zipping his best friend into a body bag as the rain putters onto the plastic.

Pretty impressive stuff, even to this sometimes cynical Lovespotter.

The one complaint: 30+ minutes for an intermission? (And that’s being conservative.) At one point, the audience started up a spontaneous synchronized clapping in an effort to get the show going again. Call ‘em old, but don’t call them indifferent.

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