Rest in peace, William Shakespeare? Not with this ruckus. April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, and theaters around the world are celebrating the occasion, including two here in Des Moines.
Downtown, a classic has been put across with youth and edge. Both the title characters of “Romeo & Juliet” are still in middle school, and a few others in the cast are younger yet.
The Verona setting looks like a Jungle Gym on wheels. Scaffolds roll from end to end of the audience-splitting “stage,” and with platforms adjusted, plus a few benches rearranged, the troupe creates a church, a palace, or, of course, the balcony which “is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
Under David Van Cleave’s direction, such effects draw us into a downward spiral. We perceive Juliet’s nurse and Romeo’s friar as parallel failures, well-meaning bumblers and so suffer the sudden tumble, in three sleep-deprived days, from kids at a party to suicides in a tomb.
One adult — Josh Vishnapu as Juliet’s father — shares this passion. The way he whips his hair around, whether in anger or grief, proves as expressive as his big Italian gestures. Still, this play is nothing without its leads, Caleb Neese and Natalie Grote. Neither rushes the poetry; the bard may somersault through his metaphors, but his people have to stumble upon their feelings. Those discoveries — Neese cocking his startled chin and Grote bending her neck for a fresh look — provide this show’s best pleasures.
Over in Beaverdale, rather than a play we have a sampler. The couple behind the “Celebration,” Lisa Norris-Lynner and her husband Brian, call themselves “Shakespeare geeks.” Their production covers a variety of moods and moments, with some of the city’s best players taking on different roles.
One of these, New York transplant Brian Vaughan, explains that each section of the show “takes some famous speech as a frame.” The evening will get underway with “all the world’s a stage,” from “As You Like it,” and then prove the point, with brief Shakespearian examples. In the process, Vaughn will get his first chance to play Hamlet.
“That character’s never excited me much,” he admits. “But now, in just one fun scene, I realized all that I could do with it.”
So, too, piano player Brian Lynner will take part again. His instrument itself will be on stage, and the “Celebration” has a loose feel, with costumes that blend the contemporary and the Elizabethan, plus a bit of audience interaction.
“We’re trying for a performance in same spirit as Shakespeare himself enjoyed back at London’s Globe Theater,” explains Lori Lynner.
The Lynners visited the Globe — restored in 1997 — a few years ago, and the shows they saw inspired this one.
“Over there, you can feel how these plays are intended for a small space, with close interaction,” she continued. “That’s what we want to honor, the human connection, which keeps on resonating centuries later.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.
“Shakespeare Celebration.” Westminster Presbyterian Church, Unexpected Company, www.westpres.org. April 22-23; April 28-30, 7:30 p.m.; April 24 and May 1, 2 p.m.