ROMEO AND JULIET at Hartford Stage

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, ” according to one of Shakespeare’s famous quotes from “Romeo and Juliet.” This saying seems to be one of the major element s that inspired Hartford’s Stage’s Artistic Director, Darko Tresnjak’s concept of this timeless tale. Like “West Side Story,” no matter what name you call it, where you set it and during what period of time, the characters are the same, and its unheeded warnings about differences and hatefulness still remain.

Tresnjak, who not only directed but designed the set with associate Colin McGurk, chose to place his “Romeo and Juliet,” in Post-World War II, Italy. In his version, an impressive, memorial wall, which may contain the remains of over 100 townspeople immediately, confronts the theatre’s gathering audience. Each of its niches is engraved with a name and has a receptacle for colorful flowers and a flickering lamp. Thus, death’s somber mood is set before the actors even appear.

While the caretakers are on ladders, changing the wall’s flowers, the fighting between the feuding families of Romeo and Juliet begins anew. We all know that whatever caused their original dispute, youthful bravado and vengeance will eventually lead to deaths, and more names being added to the memorial wall which hovers in the background. And so, “...when will we ever learn?”

The program notes indicate that Director Tresnjak was influenced by the Second World War’s desolation as depicted in Italian films of that period. His initial vision is very powerful, until the scenery sometimes competes with the play. What at first appears to be a Japanese garden with its gravel-filled meditation rectangle turns out to be many things to suit other people’s purposes. The pit serves as a bloody playground for juvenile delinquents who sport belted daggers, an imaginary swimming pool for wisecracking kids clad in swimsuits and fins, and a phantom fountain to ride around on a bicycle.

A rising platform in the middle of the gravel stones reveals a kind of chapel. The pit also becomes the courtyard and interior areas of Juliet’s house, and finally, Romeo and Juliet’s death chamber. As for the gravel itself, some audience members were overhead to say that it was, “...too noisy when stepped on and drowned out the actors words.” In any event, the stage crews’ obligation to pick up every stray piece of gravel near the front row of seats, and disinfect the pit’s mingling of blood, sweat, and spit, was a sight in itself.

For the balcony scene, a section of the memorial wall rolls out to represent a ledge from which, the love-struck Romeo dangles and swings like a monkey but never reaches the top. All of love’s longing seems to be lost -- but wait! The prolonged tension keeps building and we have a sexually stimulating scene when Juliet, in her semi-transparent gown, reclines seductively at the edge of the balcony, and Romeo lies towards her on the ground below. It’s amazing how one’s imagination can be manipulated.

A colorful highlight is the ensemble’s dance scene, which takes place at Juliet’s coming of age party. The music combines folk tunes with a contemporary beat, and I suspect that multi-talented Tresnjak, who was also a professional dancer, provided the choreography here too.

Speaking of dancing, it is amazing how closely our handsome, young Romeo (Chris Ghaffari) resembles Gene Kelly as he glides across the stage. His spoken lines are fine, but the electricity between the two lovers needs more intensity. While Juliet (Kaliswa Brewster) tries hard to emulate a giddy teenager in love, she looks older and more experienced than Romeo. It might help if Juliet’s hairstyle was more youthful and her costumes were less sophisticated. While she utters emotional phrases, she fails to touch us. Oddly, some of the supporting actors out showed the leads. Kandis Chappell was outstanding as the caring, protective Nurse. Timothy Stickney was excellent as Juliet’s authoritative father, and Charles Janasz was the kind and understanding Friar Laurence.

It’s quite obvious that Tresnjak deliberately incorporated a multi-racial/ cultural cast of actors in his vision of a world society that needs to overcome its antagonisms.“Romeo and Juliet” is well-worth seeing if you are open to the director’s novel interpretation of this timeless play, and can appreciate the risks involved in producing his epic dream.

Plays through March 20 Tickets: 860-527-5151

This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” March/2016


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