note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Carl A. Rossi
Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and everyone go to Tufts University, for there are precious few performances left of ROMEO AND JULIET at the Marston Balch Arena Theater, directed by Anthony Cornish in "a traditional Renaissance production with no gimmicks". And, by God, Mr. Cornish's production delivers the goods tights and farthingales, hand-to-hand combat using both rapier AND dagger, a cleverly staged Balcony Scene (this is theatre in the round, remember) and is performed by a student cast who if not drunk on Shakespeare's poetry is at least giddy from it and that giddiness is infectious. Mind you, these young men and women have quite a ways to go towards playing Shakespeare well they flutter now in technique's cage; but if in future productions their hearts should come into play, wedding drama to poetry, that cage will open and they will SOAR. I hope once they graduate and are out in the world, each actor will find a director as sympathetic to the Bard as Mr. Cornish is (a rare bird himself, these days). May they use Mr. Cornish as a yardstick, and may they continue to train their voices, for that way Shakespeare always lies.
As far as I can tell, Mr. Cornish has directed ROMEO from an uncut script (three hours' traffic, not two) breaking for intermission after Act III, Scene IV (where Capulet betroths his daughter to Paris) not so much for dramatic emphasis but to bring in a bridal bed for the lovers to cuddle in at the start of Act Two. In a production amazingly faithful to Elizabethan convention, this is the one modern and unnecessary insert: Romeo his shirt undone embracing Juliet in her shift would have been enough to convey that they Did the Deed; plus, this bridal bed twice stops the flow of action to allow for scenic adjustments otherwise, the characters' entrances and exits are executed with bang-on timing, like clockwork or the turning pages of a storybook. (But the ramps leading down to the stage need to be padded to deaden the hollow thud of footsteps.)
My grievance with the bridal bed aside, there is much to enjoy here and Mr. Cornish adds other touches which work quite nicely: at the Capulets' ball, the revelry continues offstage and the lovers soon re-enter to play their first scene together as if in private, and the Mercutio-Tybalt duel starts off as a gesture of amused contempt only to turn deadly all too quickly. Scene upon scene, character upon character of this ROMEO had me shaking my head in wonder and admiration at a cast this young and this good Christopher Bonewitz, Kevin Miller and Timothy Wagner play assorted bumpkins and servants right out of a tapestry or woodcut; Deane Madsen's cheeky playing of Benvolio proves that this sidekick need not live in Romeo's shadow, Christopher Tadros vocally suggests the age and dignity of old Montague without the aid of wig or paint; Allison Clear brings a Wicked Stepmother haughtiness to Lady Capulet (I suppose it is impossible to play this character sympathetically); Charlie Semine is a handsome, burning Tybalt; and Melissa Holman is simply wonderful as the warm, loving Nurse (not overly bawdy, either) may Ms. Holman keep this role in her repertoire for the rest of her acting career; she was born to it. Matching Ms. Holman in humor and audience affection is Gio Gaynor as Mercutio; an amazing performance from one who prior to this has played a chipmunk, a tree and a sliding door (see his program note). Several years ago I saw a "cutting edge" Mercutio so godawful in concept and playing that I could not wait for the Tybalt to finish him off. Happily, Mr. Gaynor's Mercutio is a good-natured chatterbox, full of nimble jests and footwork; a friend both flippant and devoted. Whenever this Mercutio is onstage, you'd swear this ROMEO can be no tragedy, and when he dies, he takes all laughter with him. When may I expect Mr. Gaynor's Benedick (for starters)? There are a few weak links in the cast: a dull, mossy-voiced Friar (whose final summing up is more DRAGNET than Shakespeare); a Lord Capulet who strangulates in anger; and a lightweight Prince who seems to walk on eggshells.
As for the star-crossed lovers
While watching Nicole Frattaroli's Juliet, I thought of the Oscar Wilde line (and I paraphrase), "What you said is true, and you were very pretty while saying it, which is far more important." Throughout the evening I was aware I was watching a little actress very pretty indeed and speaking her lines quite truthfully but lacking the vocal equipment necessary to make a convincing transition from a smitten girl to a suddenly mature woman (and it is the mature Juliet who gains our sympathy). By the time she was playing the latter, Ms. Frattaroli had spent her interest and was ransacking her collateral causing her to cough several times in her crucial scene where the Nurse reveals to her that Romeo has just slain her cousin. Straining one's voice may impress some folks as a sign of an actor's immersion in a role, but any good singer will tell you that you must SING a scream, a sob or a rant; otherwise you'll wreck havoc on your voice not to mention the audience's ears (Lord Capulet, please take note). But I found Ms. Frattaroli charming in her early scenes and moving in her death-sleep (she lies motionless on display for quite a bit of stage time). I wish her well and look forward to her Juliet in 2021 (when she will be the age when actresses of yesteryear would play the role and to great acclaim, too).
David Greene's Romeo starts off as a welcome surprise no traditional moon-calf here but a hot-blooded fellow quite at home with his friends (and enemies) on Verona's streets (his doting love for Rosaline is distinctly carnal). But Mr. Greene fails where more boneless Romeos succeed in the string section and his (verbal) love scenes with Juliet sadly remain earthbound. Though Mr. Greene gives us only half a Romeo (and not the half we have come to hear), I sense (and hold onto your hats, folks) that he is really a Hamlet not today, nor tomorrow. But soon. The materials are there the voice; the temperament; even an uncanny resemblance to Edwin Booth against which Ms. Frattaroli would make an ideal Ophelia. May local theatres woo Mr. Greene into staying in the area so that one day Boston can witness the birth of what could be (no pun intended) a great Dane. But in the meantime, Mr. Greene needs to learn how not to shatter his voice at the height of frenzy nor to slump in posture (ironically, he might also make an excellent Richard III).
Kristin Glans' costumes are simple but evocative pray, why does the cast first appear in their undergarments to hear the opening Chorus as if they were the Lost Boys being told a bedtime story? Kyna Hamill's fight choreography again, with both rapier AND dagger is lively enough but all too cautious; I'd rather watch actors duel with play-sticks for more thrust, pace and excitement than have to watch them with pointed steel, doing their damnedest not to hurt each other.
But go go see this ROMEO while it's here. This same cast blemishes and all can more than hold up to any competition should they ever find themselves transferred out of doors come summer