Romeo and Juliet Play in a Sandbox

By Geary Danihy

Actually, it’s not a sandbox, but it looks like one. Centered on Hartford Stage’s thrust stage is a square box, perhaps 20’ x 20’ (didn’t measure it) which is filled with white stones. Hidden beneath the center of the box is a stage lift, which rises to different heights to become a chapel, an altar, a table, a bed and a bier. Upstage, we have a wall of crypts running the full width of the stage, some with candle sconces, some with flower vases attached. That’s about it -- no, wait a minute. A segment of the upper wall often lifts up to reveal a sliding platform that will also perform many functions, including that of a balcony. That’s about it -- no, sorry, for hidden up in the fly space is a wrought iron fence that will, when it descends (an eye-opening moment), also run the width of the stage. Yes, that’s about it, all of it designed by the play’s director, Darko Tresnjak, with help from associate scenic designer Colin McGurk.

So, why lead off a review of the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet, which recently opened at Hartford Stage, with a description of the scenic design? Well, the set design is one of the stars of this rather impressive production, as is the subtle yet very effective lighting design created by Matthew Richards (who uses footlights at several points to create stirring shadow images).

The program notes state that the design was inspired by Italian neorealist cinema. Well, that remains to be seen. Perhaps that was the spark that ignited Tresnjak’s vision for what this production should look like, though I would suggest that there’s more than a touch of magic realism involved and a hint of German Expressionism. Whatever the inspiration, there’s no doubt that Tresnjak’s vision has been realized, and it is outre, impressive, effective and evocative.

Kudos must also go to everyone involved in the casting of the show, for the actors are, from first to last, superb. Although there are primary and secondary roles, nobody phones in a performance. First, the leads. As Juliet, Kaliswa Brewster deftly manages to suggest that she is a 14-year-old in the throes of first love. She hops, she twirls, she skips, she flounces her skirt, and when describing her Romeo she can’t get her words out fast enough (but she manages to do so). Her performance is an engaging delight.

Playing against her as Romeo, Chris Ghaffari equally delivers as a smitten, brash youth, a true sophomore (read “wise-fool”) in the study of romance. His performance is athletic and compelling, though he does chew up the scenery (such as it is) a bit in one of his scenes with Friar Laurence (Charles Janasz), but for the most part he is a believable, love-struck swain.

Strong work is also done by the supporting cast. Janasz, as the friar, is dead-on in scene after scene -- avuncular when necessary, strong-willed when it is called for, his “man-up” scene with Romeo, when the distraught lad wishes to kill himself, is an artful piece of work that drew well-deserved applause.

Equally compelling is Juliet’s Nurse, Kandis Chappell, who gets to show a range of emotions from disdain to maternal concern. However, the stand-out here is Timothy D. Stickney as Lord Capulet, Juliet’s father. I have never seen a stronger, more frightening take on the scene late in the play when Capulet demands that his daughter marry Paris (Julien Seredowych). Tresnjak’s blocking for this scene has Juliet constantly backing away from the force of her father’s verbal assault, as well she should, for Stickney creates a whirlwind of emotions. It is, perhaps, the strongest scene in the entire production.

Careful attention will reveal some very nice touches. The balcony scene, for example, is blocked with aplomb. With the platform extended, Romeo dithers about as to what he should do, until Juliet calls his name -- his reaction is priceless (could Cyrano de Bergerac have been lurking in the back of Tresnjak’s mind here?). Romeo will later dangle off the platform, legs swinging back and forth in metronomic fashion. Near the end of the scene, Tresnjak has the young lovers mime being in bed together, though Romeo is perched near the lip of the “sandbox” and Juliet is atop the platform. It’s a lovely moment, as is the dance sequence during the Capulet party where Romeo and Juliet initially meet (there’s just a touch of West Side Story here -- could it be that Tresnjak has drawn on all of the play’s iterations?).

Finally, kudos must also go to fight coordinator Steve Rankin. The initial confrontation between the Montague and Capulet households, plus the central fight scene between Tybalt (Jonathan Louis Dent), Mercutio (the energetic, effervescent Wyatt Fenner) and Romeo, and Romeo’s confrontation with Paris in Juliet’s tomb, are all staged with a great deal of visual excitement (with just a touch of Grand Guignol -- some audience members sitting in a first row may have become a bit “blood” spattered).

It’s obvious that Tresnjak had a vision of how he wanted to stage Romeo and Juliet, and that vision by and large succeeds. Though the play is a tragedy, it only becomes tragic well into the evening. Before that, there are elements of humor to be mined, and Tresnjak has allowed his cast to dig for them.

The performance, with one intermission, runs close to three hours, but Tresnjak and his cast and production team take the audience out of time into a world that was created over four centuries ago yet is timeless, "For never was there a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."

Romeo and Juliet runs through March 20. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordtsage.org.

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