Romeo and Juliet
By Brooks Appelbaum
Romeo and Juliet is being given an oddly chipper and emotionally hollow production at Hartford Stage through March 20. Part of the problem is a set that overpowers the actors and the action. A larger problem is the casting and directing of Romeo (Chris Ghaffari) and Juliet (Kaliswa Brewster). Neither has any facility with the language, and that fact can be laid at the feet of both director Darko Tresnjak and Vocal and Text Coach Claudia Hill-Sparks. Beyond that, these two have been directed to present their characters as rambunctious, randy, and far older than their stated years. In features and in movement, Ghaffari is a dead ringer for Gene Kelly, which immediately sets a jarringly jaunty tone. And Brewster works so hard to enunciate that nuances of feeling are left behind. Nowhere in evidence are the vulnerability, tenderness, and trembling passion of first love, so gorgeously captured in Shakespeare’s language.
Even Shakespeare’s language cannot compete with the distracting set design (Colin McGurk). Dominating the acting space is an enormous, sunken, gravel-covered rectangle, and whenever an unfortunate actor must cross it to speak to another actor he or she must contend with loud crunching underfoot. Director Darko Tresnjak tells us in the program notes that Italian neorealist films have inspired his vision. One might then imagine the rectangle as post-war rubble, except that the gravel is a pristine white and perfectly contained. A town square could be another plausible guess; however, the rectangle is omnipresent, and scene after iconic scene is played on or around it. Clearly Tresnjak wants to avoid cumbersome scene changes. But this solution, along with the section of elevating floor that has become de rigueur in Hartford Stage productions, is as cumbersome as any scene change might be.
Far from bringing to mind Italian neorealist cinema, each of the crucial young men—Tybalt, Mercutio, Benvolio, and Paris -- is firmly based in a different American film genre and a different American stereotype. Mercutio (Wyett Fenner) is directed to play an annoying rather than charismatic clown; and Tybalt (Jonathan Louis Dent) is presented as a tattooed thug whose arrogant, hateful stance belies all the loving words said of him before and after his death. Until the final bloody battle between these young men, Tresnjak pushes entertainment; for instance, Mercutio rides a bicycle and plays part of a scene in scuba flippers. One senses that the director doesn’t trust his audience to tolerate the tragedy of the story’s central feud.
We only see Tresnjak’s concept realized in a few stranded cases, helped along by Costumer Ilona Somogi. Kandis Chappell gives a beautifully modulated performance as the Nurse: rather than presenting the typically raucous and outsized comic relief, she plays an adult caught up in and poignantly responding to the play’s unfolding of terrible events.
Lord and Lady Capulet (Timothy D. Stickney and Celeste Ciulla) are by turns powerful, believable, and heartbreaking. Stickney, in his larger role, especially brings forth pity and terror as the tragically misguided father determined to protect his child. It’s telling that Brewster’s Juliet is strongest by far in her scenes with him.
Among these terrific actors, who handle the language impeccably, the most stunning performance comes from Charles Janasz as Friar Laurence. Whenever he is onstage, we experience the marvelous ease of understanding every word and becoming entirely caught up in the emotions of the moment.
Still, these four performances cannot save the production. The words that linger in the mind are the last: “Never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” To leave any production of Romeo and Juliet unmoved is a woeful experience indeed.
“Romeo and Juliet” continues at Hartford Stage through March 20. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.