Friday, September 26, 2008

no sweet sorrow

There was no sweet sorrow in parting as the curtain came down on Mark Morris' "Romeo and Juliet," which played over the weekend at UC Berkeley. Clocking in at nearly three hours, this was the iconic Shakespeare tragedy of young love, and it was set, as usual, amid Verona's warring clans. The difference? This "Romeo" has a happy ending. It also didn't know when to quit.

Morris' "Romeo" is an honorable, often sweet paean to the power of hope in the face of war and fear. He makes use of composer Sergei Prokofiev's original reworking of Shakespeare to remind us that violence has an antidote: love.

There is no choreographer in the U.S. who can compete with the Seattle-born dancemaker in his ability to put his deep humanist beliefs onstage in a highly legible way. But laudable ideals are no guarantee of good theater. By the end of Act 1, where we've been introduced to most all the actors, learned about the dangerous love between the adorable lovers, and are ready for the drama to intensify, "Romeo" was already reminiscent of an old-fashioned spectacle from 1930s or a shaggy dog tale, the familiar action piling on to the familiar music with near-biblical inexorability.

Entering the theater, one saw the stage screened by a fanciful partition of geometric patterns you might see in a kaleidoscope, designed by frequent Morris collaborator Allen Moyer. When that screen lifted, we were presented with a stage box lined with more partial walls, this time consisting of enormous blond parquetry, like outsize parquet flooring.

The set became emblematic of something fundamentally awry with the overall conception of this "Romeo." By contrast, the miniature Italian buildings that dotted the stage floor hinted at the small, pared-back and minimalist approach this ballet needed.

Morris, as always, did his homework, utilizing the dances of the traditional Romeo as a reference point, sometimes with superb ingenuity; other times, as during the ball scene or in the square, with far too little heft. He also brought his storehouse of humor to work. The battle of obscene gestures between the Capulet and Montague gangs that launches the drama was here a cavalcade of flip-offs — a veritable celebration of our capacity to invent insult. Cross-dressed Amber Darragh (Mercutio) and Julie Worden (Tybalt) as the fiercest insulters have rarely been so sexy.

Morris is not a narrative choreographer, though, and even though he is adept at telling snapshot stories, he has difficulty building movement arcs into his ballets. The reason has to do with his movement vocabulary, which lacks internal complexity and relies on horizontal pattern more than volume and varied use of the body's kinesphere to shape space.

This poses serious problems when he bites off a big work, especially one with a substantial story and lots of characters to carve out. It is even more problematic when a score, such as the Prokofiev, is full of big Russian shifts of temper and tempo. Between the massive set and the score, the dance, with its many instances of wit and beauty, was overpowered, and the dancing tended to look thinner than it even was.

But there were also the transcendent moments and movers, who fully embodied what Morris and his team, including always inventive and knowing costumer Martin Pakledinaz and lighting designer James F. Ingalls, were after. There was pint-size Lauren Grant, whose artistry grows by quantum leaps each time we see her and who, as Juliet's Nurse, nearly stole the show.

Strong-sweet Maile Okamura as Juliet and a compellingly boyish Noah Vinson both infused their roles with an energy and nuance that made small steps read big and made us believe in love as a redeeming power. And Joe Bowie as Escalus, Prince of Verona, offered us a view of Good Government — calm, kind, and open to compromise.

But in the end, the music and its length controlled the night, forcing the choreographer to create lots of incidental movement, and that itself led to a kind of oppression: dance was reduced to the handmaiden of its sister art. This was not the message Morris was attempting to impart in the drama, yet ironically it was precisely that message that made some of us dash up the aisle the instant Berkeley Symphony Orchestra fell silent.

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