If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
“R&J” Upstaged by Design at Hartford Stage
Last fall Hartford Stage's jaw-dropping set for "Rear Window" nearly threatened to swallow its cast whole. But that's nothing compared to the theatre’s current scenic design for "Romeo and Juliet", a gravel pit the size of an Olympic swimming pool, that is busy upstaging every actor within ten feet of it. Rarely has a design choice proved to be such an ultimate distraction.
Directed and designed by Hartford Stage’s brilliant artistic director Darko Tresnjak, this "Romeo" has to be ranked a disappointment from the artist who, in previous seasons, has brought us near-perfect Shakespeare productions of "Macbeth", "Twelfth Night" and, most recently (and gloriously), "Hamlet". In the misguided “Romeo”, Tresnjak’s concept is to set Shakespeare’s tragedy in post-war Italy inspired by the Italian neorealism explored in the films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. That may explain the gravel pit which is either representative of a crumbling city or a Verona beach. Take your pick. The beach would make more sense if it was actually sand being used, but the noisy gravel employed succeeds in giving a chorus of “crunch, crunch, crunch” every time an actor has to clumsily step down and navigate this giant litter box. Framing the set upstage is an enormous mausoleum wall festooned with flowers, dead and alive. Tresnjak has his female extras service the wall by replacing flowers throughout certain scenes, again, distracting from the main action.
It would be nice to report that the cast gathered for this production rose above the scenic design issues but, in the case of most of the younger actors, that is just not true. As the doomed lovers, Kaliswa Brewster and Chris Ghaffari are youthful, very attractive players. Their passion, however, rarely comes to a boil and the chemistry seems off.
Brewster’s flat delivery squanders much of the play’s poetry but Ghaffari does at least manage to register in a later scene with the fine Charles Janasz playing Friar Laurence. In other roles Wyatt Fenner is an angry, unfunny and annoying Mercutio, Alex Hanna’s Benvolio is hampered by blurry diction and Julien Seredowych makes for a dull Paris. The more seasoned actors, like Mr. Janasz, include Kandis Chappell, working against type as Juliet’s loyal Nurse, and Timothy D. Stickney and Celeste Ciulla who, as Lord and Lady Capulet, are both commanding and memorable. Late in the play Stickney’s rage at his daughter’s impudence brings real fireworks and high drama to the production.
While Ilona Somogyi’s costuming is serviceable, Matthew Richards’ lighting design has some questionable moments. When Friar Laurence offers his sleeping potion to Juliet, the lights suddenly begin swirling and Jane Shaw’s sound design starts to rumble as if someone just hit the melodrama switch for extra effect. As noted, the design does a lot of upstaging in this “Romeo and Juliet”. Blame Mr. Tresnjak. He has raised the bar so high with previous productions and delivered so consistently since becoming Artistic Director in 2011, we expect far more from him each time now.
“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.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.