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THEATER REVIEW : A 'Romeo and Juliet' That's Not for Purists : The Ojai festival production has a few shining moments, but suffers from overacting and inappropriate casting.


The Ojai Shakespeare Festival's current production of "Romeo and Juliet" is not for the purist or the unimaginative.

Though it retains Shakespeare's setting of Verona, Italy, the production's inappropriate casting of major roles, a variety of dramatic styles and more than its fair share of overacting combine for a "Romeo" that may cause pedants to reel with horror.

Still, if those issues can be set aside, the production holds up well enough to be worth seeing. This is the case even if the festival's rambunctious afternoon production--"The Taming of the Shrew"--is considerably more successful on its own, quite different terms.

Aaron Craig and Rena Derezin lead as the star-crossed lovers who give the play its title. Each is several years older than the teen-agers Shakespeare specified, and neither (though able to toss off a line of iambic pentameter with panache) gives the impression of being a love-smitten pup.

Also, at least in Sunday night's performance, both stars seemed to be acting for themselves rather than for one another. The chemistry between them was less than overwhelming, which dampened the effect of the play's conclusion.

The most interesting second-tier characters may be Mercutio, played by Jacob Ackermann, and Tybalt, portrayed by James Leslie. Friends of Romeo and Juliet, respectively, they contribute much of the first act's energy, comic and otherwise, and their final confrontation is easily one of the show's high points.

Also notable are Tish Winkworth and Vincent Wares, respectively as Juliet's nurse and Friar Lawrence; Jennifer Buchalter as a comic servant (played as though she wandered in from "Shrew"); and the company's madrigal singers, who contribute much atmosphere. Nice, too, is the combo--recorders and a dulcimer--that plays at the party that Romeo and his friends crash, and which leads to the central romance.

Somewhat surprising is David McAllister's portrayal of Juliet's father. A veteran actor with numerous professional credits, he portrays the elder Capulet with teeth-gnashing passion from the William Shatner school of acting. His big scene in Act II Sunday night was a comic highlight.

The OSF's artistic director, Paul Backer, helmed this motley collective of actors. The staging is rather static up until the balcony scene (which comes fairly early in the three-hour production) and--to Backer's credit as well as the actors'--the action and dialogue are commendably clear throughout. The elegant, minimal set was designed by Todd Littlehale and painted by Pierre Patry and Janine Cooper. Dana Kilgore designed the effective lighting.


"Romeo and Juliet" continues tonight through Sunday evenings through Aug. 15 at Libbey Bowl in Ojai's Libbey Park. All performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets tonight are $10 general, $8 seniors/students; on Friday and Sunday, $12 general, $10 students and seniors; on Saturday, $15 general and $12 seniors/students. Tickets for all performances are $4 for those 13 to 18 years old. Children under 13 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult, with a limit of four children per adult--though this play is not recommended for the very young. Remember, too, that the highly recommended "The Taming of the Shrew" continues Saturday and Sunday afternoon at 1 at the same location. Tickets are $8 general, $7 students and seniors, and $3 for those 13 to 18 years old. Children under 13 also are admitted free when accompanied by an adult, with a limit of four children per adult. For these afternoon performances, the audience is seated on the grass outside the bowl, so you might want to bring a blanket or low folding chair, which (because Shakespeare fans are so considerate) won't interfere with the sight lines of others. Tickets for all shows are available at the door before each performance. For further information, call 646-WILL.

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