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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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A shot from Off The Wall's current production of "Romeo and Juliet," which runs through April 6.
A shot from Off The Wall's current production of "Romeo and Juliet," which runs through April 6.

Creaky bones can't stop Off The Wall's "Romeo and Juliet"

When you hear about a retirement home, the vision comes easily.

Old people sitting around, watching hour after hour of television, waiting for a visit from someone. Bibs aplenty to catch the drool. Sometimes shaky caregivers.

That’s the vision almost all of us have.

But not in the eccentric, many times brilliant and always interesting mind of Dale Gutzman, artistic director of Off The Wall Theatre.

Gutzman’s vision of a retirement home came to life in "Romeo and Juliet," which opened Thursday night and runs through April 6. And to say this version of the Shakespeare classic love story is unusual is a massive understatement.

Gutzman sets his production in Casa dei (sic) Attori di Verona, a retirement home for old actors from Verona, not coincidentally the same city where Romeo fell in love with Juliet.

The premise is simple. These actors, all of whom have seen better days, decide to put on a performance of "Romeo and Juliet." Many of them had probably done the show in their salad days, but this is different.

Gutzman could have played this as a comedy, a spoof or the sort. That surely seems like the expected way to go. But Gutzman rarely does the expected.

On this one, he plays it straight. He lets the play tell the story of family jealousies and treacheries and of a love so pure and so tempestuous that it knew no boundaries.

Gutzman, who is 69, played Romeo, who was probably 15 or 16 in the original. Marilyn White, 67, played Juliet, who is 13 in Shakespeare's play.  And after a short time, I forgot how old they really were. I fell in love, as audiences have for centuries, with the young boy and his surprisingly young love.

I knew it was going to be an unusual production when the audience came into the tiny theater. The actors were all on stage in various costumes, talking and interacting with each other and audience members. It was informality at its most obvious. 

But once the real lights came up and the actors became characters, the play took off. Let’s face it: Even after countless variations, "Romeo and Juliet" is a masterful play and an absolutely engrossing story. It’s hard to ruin this play.

As interesting as this production was, it was not without its difficulties.

It takes years and years for an actor to do justice to Shakespeare’s text and language. It’s difficult to do well so that an audience can understand what’s going on.

The single most obvious way to tell that actors are having problems with the text is when they put what they think are dramatic pauses in the middle of their dialogue. Inexperienced actors think this is the way to drive home the emotion and points of the play.

But the best and most experienced actors know that Shakespeare’s text tells an actor everything he or she needs to know about the lines. He tells the actor when to pause, what words to hit hard, everything. There is a rhythm to what he wrote and those pauses just disrupt the beauty of the rhythm. 

Learning how to do this comes only with serious training and years of experience. Both the training and experience were sadly lacking in most of the characters in this production.

White has a good grasp on the language and was darling as Juliet. David Flores, who played Juliet’s nurse, showed that he has lots of experience with the Bard, and Gutzman was, as he always is on stage, a formidable presence.

But the remainder of the cast suffered through the confusion created by text problems. Many of the characters memorized their lines and seemingly just decided to go their merry way with whatever emotive expression they felt was appropriate. Nothing can make Shakespeare seem difficult more than actors who try to add their own style to the words in the script.

Most of the rest of the cast was afflicted with this problem, with the exception of Jason Will, who delivered a pretty good Mercutio, and Jeremy Welter who played Friar Lawrence. Will was a little more sleazy than needed, and there were a number of kind of off-color jokes that found their way into a very serious story.

But even with those shortcomings, Off The Wall's "Romeo and Juliet" was a fascinating night of theater.

Gutzman makes some outlandish promises in the run-up to his productions. Most of the time, he fulfills those promises. This night was certainly one of those times.

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