Montagues and Capulets fight it out in Hartford -- “Romeo and Juliet” at Hartford Stage through March 20
By Tom Nissley
The star-crossed lovers we all know about are back in action in a somewhat uneven production of “Romeo and Juliet” at Hartford Stage, directed and designed by Darko Tresnjak, Artistic Director of Hartford Stage. The design part includes a set that appears to be a big mausoleum stretching all across the stage, with flowers attached to most of the numbered lockers, and a gravel-filled reflecting pool that serves as town-square and church and the Capulet mansion, and finally the tomb, as any good Shakespeare stage should. Both the mausoleum wall and the reflecting pool have hidden sections that from time to time open for some further use (think balcony).
I love some things about this play. One is that the Capulets are giving a Masque in their fine home in Verona, but their servant cannot read, so asks two boys in the town square to help him figure out where to deliver the invitations. The boys are Romeo and Benvolio (Montagues -- we’ve already been tipped off by a bitten thumb that the Montagues and Capulets really dislike each other) and having read the guest list the two boys decide to crash the party, which is where Romeo meets and is immediately attracted to Juliet, who, in turn, is immediately attracted to him. Lightning should strike at this point, and it does in the words the two young lovers speak, but not so perfectly in their acting. Nevertheless, we do get that they have fallen in love, and have agreed in principle to take their attraction further tomorrow. Like, get married! All of this because Capulet’s servant can’t read.
There is, of course, some background. Romeo has been brooding because he wanted Rosaline to return his affection, and she’s been very not-interested. Juliet, at age 13, has just received a proposal from Paris, which her father and mother think is great, but she does not. So in a way they have been primed to find each other. The next day they steal off to Friar Lawrence’ cell to be married. Then in the afternoon there’s that unfortunate fight with Tybalt (a Capulet) in which Mercutio is killed and Romeo outraged enough to fight with Tybalt and kill him, so that the Prince banishes Romeo before anyone even knows about the marriage… what a mess! Romeo spends the night with Juliet, in secret, of course, on her balcony. The script suggests they consummate their marriage. As dawn breaks the two have that wonderful debate about whether a nightingale is giving them more time or a lark is giving them less. It is the lark, and Romeo kisses Juliet farewell and flees to Mantua.
The physical bits of acting in this production often seem overdone. Tybalt (Jonathan Louis Dent) is so deeply agitated by the thought of a Montague visiting a Capulet party that he struts like a gangster. And Capulet (Timothy D Stickney) flails his arms and shrieks his displeasure when Juliet (Kaliswa Brewster) says she cannot marry Paris (Julien Seredowych). All the words are in the script, and it would be equally displeasing if they were pleasantly acted, but there is a disconnect when the actors go off like cannon fire. Another disconnect happens when a very lively Mercutio (Wyatt Fenner) - dressed for scuba-diving? - flops around in flippers while taunting the Nurse (Kandis Chappell), who, by the way, deserves super notice for her excellent performance in this production, along with Friar Lawrence (Charles Janasz), who also gave a stellar performance. Romeo (Chris Ghaffari) had delicious moments and some good athletic moves. But he was not without disconnect either, as he cavalierly plucked flowers from a stranger’s gravestone to give to Juliet for their marriage. I was often bemused by the conceit of this production, and hard-pressed to know why it was set, along with costumes (Ilona Somogyi), in the dregs of Mussolini’s Italy. The heaviness of the characters and the drape of the women’s clothing seemed to go together in a depressing way that had some meaning to Mr. Tresnjak that did not get through to me.
You know the ending. Juliet takes a potion to seem to be dead to make it clear that she’s not marrying Paris. Romeo does not get the message from Friar Lawrence but does return to Verona, only to find her lying in a tomb. He takes poison that kills him by her side and when she wakes, she kills herself too, and the quarreling families shake hands and swear that the lovers will have a monument to remind us all of the futility of family feuds.
I’m not telling you to skip this production. Its impact is mammoth even if it’s not entirely satisfying, and certainly the story is told. So go and see it; decide if you are distracted or enthralled. Information and tickets are available at www.hartfordstage.org or at 860-527-5151.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre