From fancy balls to pool cue brawls, it was all in a night’s work for the actors in Irwin Appel’s “Naked Shakespeare” project, an annual tradition in the UCSB BFA program that’s also become one of the area’s most exciting opportunities to experience highly-conscientious, text-oriented productions of the Bard. This year’s edition pitted one of the most extravagant UCSB casts in recent memory against Shakespeare’s most popular entertainment, the endlessly seductive early tragedy Romeo and Juliet. It was an inspired choice, and, in a year thick with revivals of the play, some of these performances will be hard to top. Overall the impression was one of deep engagement with the words on the page, yet nevertheless in steady balance with the demands of the other people in the scene. Together these twin emphases on meaning and action resulted in a lucid explication of the plot loaded with verbal fireworks.
Any production of Romeo and Juliet relies on strong performances from the supporting roles. As Juliet’s Nurse, Madeline Minor brought out the passion and empathy of the character, clarifying her motivation by emphasizing the personal connection that Shakespeare writes into the part with her backstory of the lost daughter Susan, who would be about Juliet’s age. As Friar Laurence, Trevor Wade negotiated the trickiest issues of plausibility with ease, putting the lovers’ struggles into a larger context and grounding the audience’s feeling that they were meant for one another in some kind of onstage perspective. Both these actors carried long sequences forward with grace and easy intelligibility.
For this tragedy’s complement of danger, excitement, and violence, there’s no need to look further than the young men of Verona—friends and foes alike of the lover Romeo. Jak Watson was great as Tybalt, all street bravado and simmering menace. The night’s most striking impression was made by Robert Torres as Mercutio, the play’s not-so-secret weapon. Torres turned the classic “Queen Mab” speech into a tour de force of timing and delivery, opening up whole stretches of the sheerest poetry to the easy comprehension of laughing audiences onstage and off.
These Naked Shakespeare productions are intended to strip away any element that distracts from the drama inherent in the language of the play, and on that score, the leads were also very successful. As Romeo, Brian Bock performed with an athleticism and presence of mind that neatly counteracted any trace of dreaminess in the role. As Juliet, Alexia Dox consistently performed magic with the words, finding new emphases and placing pauses in just the right spots to magnify the impact of this young woman’s sudden immersion in a world of emotional absolutes.
The staging and direction were crisp and fluid; even some fancy condensation, in which different scenes were played out simultaneously in counterpoint, worked well and left a clear impression.