Robert M. Johanson and Anne Gridley
in Romeo & Juliet
(© Paula Court)
Robert M. Johanson and Anne Gridley
in Romeo & Juliet
(© Paula Court)
Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, right? Well, perhaps not as well as they might think, as ably demonstrated in Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Romeo and Juliet, now being presented at The Kitchen. The experimental theater troupe has based its new piece -- conceived and directed by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper -- on actual conversations that asked participants to recount Shakespeare's classic love story. But while initially amusing, the performance becomes repetitive and doesn't go much beyond providing a few easy laughs.

As with NTO's prior pieces such as No Dice and Rambo Solo, the spoken text for the show is derived from pre-recorded telephone interviews that are piped into the actors' ears in real time via iPods. Anne Gridley and Robert M. Johanson take turns delivering these monologues, while treading the boards of a set (designed by Peter Nigrini) that is an intentionally cheap reproduction of an old-fashioned proscenium stage -- complete with footlights and prompter box.

The duo also affect a mode of acting that parodies common misperceptions of "Shakespearan" style, characterized by rounded tones, occasional British inflections, and a movement vocabulary full of emotive flourishes. For good measure, they throw in a few odd pronunciations of words such as "balcony" and "morgue." Both performers are quite funny, but the various speeches follow roughly the same pattern of a person trying to recall the story and getting certain facts wrong -- and sometimes completely inventing plot details and characters.

The point the company seems to be trying to make is that retelling this (or perhaps any) plotline says more about the person speaking than it does about the story itself. There are some interesting digressions, including one speaker lamenting the passing of cocktail parties and another person making comparisons between the events of the play and 9/11. But overall, things stay on a fairly superficial level.

The trajectory of the evening is delightfully and unexpectedly broken by an odd chicken dance by Elisabeth Conner. But this, too, is less effective when Conner comes out a second time. Towards the end of the 95-minute show, Gridley and Johanson finally appear together for a conversation that is less about what happens within Romeo and Juliet, and more about themes derived from the play, including love, sex, and neediness.

In many ways, this is the most compelling segment of the production, and nicely enhanced by Gridley and Johanson playing a subtext of desire that is somewhat at odds with the actual conversation they're repeating. Also effective is a coda, performed in darkness, which serves as a sharp contrast to what's come before it.