Mark Morris's new Romeo and Juliet, which opened a four-night run at Cal Performances last night, is every bit as drab and undramatic as you've heard. It has all the traditional Morrisian weaknesses — slavish adherence to the rhythms of the score, a little repertoire of signature gestures repeated ad nauseam — while adding some extra just for you, as Mr. Larkin might say; those include several uncharacteristically clunky crowd sequences and a scene in Friar Laurence's cell that will have you clawing at your face out of sheer tedium. There's also some newly discovered music by Prokofiev and a happy ending, but by the end of three hours it's hard to care. My colleague Steven Winn should have the bloody details in tomorrow's Chron.
But, but, but . . . There is one thing in this production that is truly mesmerizing, namely Morris' choreography for Mercutio and Amber Darragh's breathtaking rendition of same. Let's face it, Mercutio is generally the best part of any Romeo, whether spoken, sung or danced. But I don't think I've never seen his insouciance and wit so vividly or so physically rendered.
Morris has a couple of cross-casting bits here: Tybalt is also danced by a woman (Julie Worden), which doesn't add anything that I can see. But Darragh is tall (taller than some of the men onstage with her) and gangly, and she looks like one of those adenoidal teenagers from a progressive high school who's discovered that sullenness, erudition and verbal flair can be combined to annoy the piss out of the grownups.
Best of all, Mercutio's wit is made flesh in Darragh's dancing, with its slightly unsteady bravado and knowing sarcasm. This is a young man just discovering the power of his satiric gift — sometimes he simply lets it fly, sometimes he pauses to gauge its effect and make little corrections. His disruption of the ball in Act 1 is comically priceless, and by the time Act 2 began (and I'd realized that nothing else on stage would be as rewarding to watch as Darragh) I was convulsed in laughter at just the sight of Mercutio's mincing steps.
And then he dies. The incredible emotional power of Mercutio's death, sardonic to the end, goes back to Shakespeare, of course ("ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man"). But Morris translates that spirit beautifully into movement, as Mercutio stays upright by sheer force of will in between sudden collapses to the stage, and Darragh infuses the scene with heartbreaking pride and ferocity.
I can't say Darragh's performance is worth putting up with the surrounding humdrumitude. But if you're going anyway, and feeling the urge to flee after Act 1, suppress it until the second intermission. Act 2 will amply reward your fortitude; after that you're free to leave.