Romeo and Juliet

By David A. Rosenberg

Pow! Slam! Crunch! Thunk! Gasp!

From the beginning where two street gangs duke it out in Verona, to the final here-we-go-again tableau, director Shana Cooper’s interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet” at Yale Rep invites thoughts of comic book battles. Never mind that blows don’t actually land, that the fracas is more balletic than dangerous.

The point is set early that this will be a visceral, intermittently stylized rendering of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, one that opts for speed and vitality. That the play is also a heartfelt love story comes second.

There’s the rub. Not that we miss rounded vowels and clipped consonants. But, it’s telling that the best spoken and, not incidentally, most effective performance is by British-born Andy Murray as Capulet. In the second, better, of the evening’s two acts, his berating the ungrateful Juliet for not wanting to marry the honorable Paris is pulse-quickening.

Juliet, at this point, is secretly married to the feckless Romeo, whose Montague family has a long-standing feud with the Capulets. Wedding Juliet should, he hopes, put a stop to the mayhem that has torn apart their respective clans. Of course, the lovers’ actions, instead of leading to reconciliation, end in tragedy.

Director Cooper uses the physicality of warring tribes as contrast and threat to the sensuality of young love. Emphasizing the shirtless ruffians, she vacillates between images that are sometimes striking, sometimes merely perverse.

Striking is Romeo’s rolling about in a fever dream. (“I dreamt my lady came and found me dead.”) Perverse is throwing dirt on the shrouded, dead Juliet, an especially senseless moment after she talks of waking in the tomb so terrified that, seeing her dead cousin Tybalt, she might pluck him from his shroud. They’re on slabs, folks, not in the ground.

            Also on the plus side is having the lovers’ parents blandly drink cocktails while, in another room, Juliet bemoans her fate. Effective, too, is when Friar Laurence, admitting his part in the deception that has doomed the lovers, is pummeled by a furious Lady Capulet (the tightly wound Christine Rounder). 

             Then we have Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech so broken up with “business,” this great passage is lost. It doesn’t help that Mercutio is played as high camp by John Patrick Doherty who, at one point wears fishnet stockings and heels. If we’re meant to infer a homoerotic relationship between him and Romeo, something not without a textual basis, it’s not followed through in this mishmash production, one that’s almost entirely devoid of sexual passion.

Cooper neglects the play’s juxtaposition between innocence and experience, impulse and responsibility. Chalk at least part of this failing to the uneven performances of the lovers. As Romeo, Joseph Parks gains in intelligence and nobility. But, as Juliet, Irene Sofia Lucio speaks without variety and doesn’t at all convey the courage of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood.

As the loquacious, soft-hearted Nurse, Cynthia Mace gets the right balance between comic foolishness and tragic horror, while Seamus Mulcahy has fun with the minor part of Peter. Henry Stram is a sympathetic Friar Laurence, Graeme Malcolm a dignified Prince, Marcus Henderson a vengeful Tybalt and Ben Horner an insufferable Paris.

As Romeo’s parents, Christopher McHale is an anger-filled father, but Catherine Castellanos is hampered by her Jimmy Choo-like shoes and tight skirt. Indeed, designer Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are a grab-bag of styles.

Under Rick Sordelet’s fight direction and Seán Curran’s choreography, the gangs are hormonally driven gym rats, chinning, hanging upside down, doing pushups. Po-Lin Li’s set, with its looming windows and plain floor, makes room for their physicality (although what those stage left bricks and dirt mound mean is a puzzle).

This is a headlong, unsubtle production which convinces on those terms. Yet it’s not the feuding hoods we’ve come to see but the “rash, unadvised, sudden” title characters caught in a tragedy at least partly of their own making. Our hearts should ache. They don’t.

This review by Dave Rosenberg appeared in The Hour, Sunday, March 27, 2011:

 

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