Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Romeo And Juliet"

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note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Larry Stark


"Romeo And Juliet"

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer

Set Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers
Lighting Design by Mark Rosenkoetter
Costume Design by Cheryl McCarron
Sound Design by Katrina Owen
Choreography and Fights by Weston Wall
Production Stage Manager Chloe Keller
Stage Manager Eileen Rooney

Juliet...........................................................Rebecca Honig
Friar Lawrence/Prologue................................Bill Gardiner
Nurse..........................................................Suzanne Nitter
Romeo..........................................................Aaron Kleven
Mercutio......................................................Forrest Walter
Lady Capulet...........................................Stephanie Dorian
Benvolio.....................................................Michael Turvin
Lord Montague.........................................Charles Hughes
Lady Montague............................................Mary Driscoll
Sampson/Peter/Page/Ensemble...................Tom Lawrence
Balthazar..............................................Merrick McMahon
Abram/Friar John/Ensemble............................Trey Ziegler
Tybalt.......................................................Robert Najarian
Gregory/ Apothecary/Officer/Ensemble..........Weston Wall
Ensemble
Cheryl Finlayson, Alyssa Gettleman, Alastair Connor
Paris.................................................................Bill Homan
Lord Capulet................................................Don Warnock
Prince.................................................Murray Wheeler, Jr.


Boston Theatre Works has been given a grant to take "Romeo And Juliet" into local schools to introduce kids to the play being written in Tom Stoppard's movie "Shakespeare in Love" --- and so they are having a Boston try-out run in The Tremont Theatre, their home space up Tremont Street from Ye Wilbur and The Wang. Doing a show designed for kids before a paying adult audience is a bit chancy, but at least parents can preview a production featuring Rebecca Honig's excellent Juliet and judge the effectiveness of the rest of the company. I think it would be best, since this is a sort of shakedown-cruise, if I try to predict what a high-school audience will get, and what they won't, in this peculiarly off-balance reading of the play.

The show starts, quite effectively, inside the Capulet mausoleum where the mourning figures of the Capulet and Montague elders turn sadly toward a high bier while Friar Lawrence intones the prologue. Jean Anouilh noted that you already know at the beginning of a tragedy how it will end, and this is a good prefiguring. And Bill Gardiner is a perfect choice for this role. He is a quiet actor whose silences demand your attention and whose eyes lock one-on-one with the audience while he speaks. His every re-appearance through the play serves as a reminder of that inevitable end. I think there can be no more effective way to silence a teen-age crowd and impress upon them the seriousness of the two-hours' traffic of our stage than this.

The thrust of the play, though, is the impetuous lunges after life that fling the young to rash disaster, and thus much of the cast is young, but more often asked to be young rather than to act youth. Too many wander on unprepared, their boyish smiles spilling lines across the stage like so many bouncing baubles reft of sense or subtlety. They seem too busy being to have considered what they are.

Cheryl McCarron has costumed all in contemporary clothing --- as The Bard was done for his first hundred years --- but the epees hung from everyone's belts make a jarring contrast dictated by the text. Since no thought was taken of this conflict, the eager teen-age eye of a high-school audience will surely notice it. Worse, since the cast here sets abrawling from no conviction save the story says they do, this frees the watching minds to speculate and to doubt.

Now enters fresh-faced Romeo --- Aaron Kleven, who will churn every girl's heart to thoughts of DiCaprio and such cinematic hunks. He enters lost in love, and everyone will think with Juliet unless they know the text. It's not until he reads the name "Rosaline" in a list of invitees to the Capulet ball that, with a brilliantly subtle double-take he tips his hand. Kleven has flashes such as this of spontaneous insight, separated by long passages in which the lines mean almost nothing to him, and certainly to the audience. Struck by the lovely Juliet across a crowded room, he gushes superlatives as though he were struck, unfortunately, dumb. It takes the sudden separation from Juliet late in the play to make him come believably alive in his words --- and this is much too late.

Apparently Director Daniel Elihu Kramer seeks to play to the intended audience's distrust of grown-ups, for the elder Montagues and particularly Capulets are all overstuffed pontificators chiding and lecturing their children while rarely listening or even looking them in the eye --- obviously the enemy. Don Warnock's Lord Capulet is the most extreme, ramrod-straight and leaning forward literally from the ankles to tell his cowering daughter what she will do or else. Stephanie Dorian's Lady Capulet tinges her autocracy with a bit of love, but she too is as formal as the cut of her gown and the lacquering of her hair. Still, this shoot-out at generation gap is so doctrinaire the motivations for such parental scorn are hard to see.

Aside from the sympathetic Friar Lawrence, the one positive adult in the play is Susanne Nitter's talkative old Nurse. This is a bravura role, played for laughs that are structural in the text. Nitter is center-stage and full-out whenever on, but only when she brings the hard news that Romeo is banished after killing cousin Tybalt is she truly engaged in dialogue. The kids will see a witty, with-it, risqué aunt here, though one whose work is largely external and uninvolved.

But soft, fair Juliet. Rebecca Honig's performance is a diamond set in brass. Every syllable, every impulse rises spontaneously out of her impetuous innocence. Her sudden shifts and lunges throughout the balcony scene make everything new and believable, giving old lines new resonance. Her radiant face attests that everything happening to her is, indeed, happening to her in this very moment, and the high-school audience will thrill with her to every instant.

Unfortunately, such a performance unbalances what is generally an attempt to get all the words right and indicate characters and action pretty much in the abstract. Yes, there are flashes in everyone's performances that nail it for the moment --- but only for the moment. The entire cast should spend this try-out time woodshedding exactly Why they say things and what things said to them mean. It would seem that Daniel Kramer has barely begun to direct this cast, and will need a lot of work to shape all its parts into a coherent whole.

But there are physical things involved in the staging that will throw any high school audience off. I said the opening tableau is in the mausoleum, with a series of grave-chambers bunked two-high stage-right, each heaped with the tattered white cerements of the dead, and Juliet's high bier dominating stage-right. Behind it all is a lattice of slats, and the predominant color is gray-black. Fine for beginning and end, these elements stay on Susan Zeeman Rogers' unit set, crowding and cramping most of the action into the shallow vee of space remaining, with nothing but blocking and costumes to set the many scenes. Once or twice a diagonal pure-white curtain runs in front of the graves. It has the words of the prologue faintly writ large upon it, but it provides only a stop-gap change in scene.

Every time The Prince comes on, an ensemble-member must run three rungs up the back lattice to unroll a long, narrow golden scarf on which he stands in his sash of office, officiating. The scarf is awkward, unrealistic, and silly, and the director has asked Murray Wheeler, Jr., an experienced actor, to play a bored autocrat mouthing rhymed verse as though it were doggerel drivel. None of it works.

Friar Lawrence also builds his cell stage-right by wafting a white sheet upon the ground, holding it elsewhen like a sleeping baby. It makes him look like he's obsessed with clean laundry.

That bier stage-right works well as the forehead-high bier where the lovers die, and using it before that as their bridal bed lends a melancholy underscore to that scene. But having Juliet run up an escape-stairs to stand on it for the balcony-scene turns what has depth and substance in the playing to an awkward sketch as stagecraft. Luckily, it's the always believable Juliet who lends this credibility.

But there is a glaring inconsistency thrust into the show just as Romeo and Juliet are bedded for the first time. That diagonal sheet stretches the full width of the stage, and a huge film-image of dead Mercutio is projected onto the screen while the actor lip-sings "Last Night When We Were Young" in a simple lounge-singer style. The couple, chastely over-dressed for a bridal pair, entwine during the song, admit it's the lark not the nightingale, and part. What the song does for any of this is a mystery, especially since it is a Yip Harburg/Harold Arlen tune written long before any of the intended audience were born.

One message the teen-age audience will get is that though these star-crossed lovers fling themselves into love at first glance, Juliet expects marriage before sex. The fact that they are married less than twenty hours after that first glance, bedded some forty hours after, and both dead of suicide the day after that won't reinforce that moral precept, though. The more important fact is that they will see Shakespeare's Juliet, and much of Romeo and others, come vibrantly alive before their very eyes. And, depending on how much work director and cast continue to do, perhaps they will begin to like the play itself.

Love,
===Anon.


"Romeo and Juliet" (till 20 November)
BOSTON THEATRE WORKS
Tremont Theatre, 276 Tremont St., Boston, MA
(617) 728-4321

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