Romeo and Juliet

By David A. Rosenberg

Must we keep saying “Poor Shakespeare”? Our friends and neighbors at Shakespeare on the Sound have once again contrived to “improve” the Bard, with mixed results. Thankfully, “Romeo and Juliet” (or “Romeo + Juliet,” aping the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film), not only survives but, under Joanna Settle’s direction, reaches a level of sublimity. This despite a production that insists on a conceit that gets the evening off to a mushy start and goes nowhere.

 

Settle frames the play as if it were taking place at a dinner party where contemporary guests get together annually to read a play. Even Shakespeare had trouble with this sort of thing, as shown in the rarely performed Induction to “The Taming of the Shrew.” (To be fair, scholars believe that parts of that framing device have been lost.)

 

Though not inherently unworkable, the conceit, which we expect will give fresh insights to the play, doesn’t. That it is quickly discarded is all for the better. But we’ve been set up to expect some sort of connection between frame and play, one that never arrives.

 

At the start, the middle-aged host’s young wife is in charge of assigning roles, taking Juliet for herself. Instead of having her husband read Romeo, he’ll be Juliet’s father, Capulet, while Romeo will be her former boyfriend. Aha! Is she commenting on her husband’s virility? Is this a way for her to re-connect with a former b.f.? Your guess.

 

By the balcony scene, scripts are discarded and we’re plunged into the play proper. The tale of star cross’d lovers becomes moving and passionate though non-erotic, especially as winningly acted by William Jackson Harper as the ardent, immature Romeo and Ali Ahn as the exuberant, pitiful Juliet. Also standing out is Chinasa Ogbuagu as the loving, pragmatic Nurse.

 

With the added resonance of music by the one-named Stew and Heidi Rodewald (their “In Fair Verona” is haunting), the fated romance unfolds with rigor. Here is a generational clash as the two young lovers are thwarted by aging conventions of state and family. (Maybe that’s the point of the frame.) Here, too, are the consequences of impetuosity: the chance meeting, the inflamed romance, the hasty marriage, the headlong tragedy.

 

The end is inevitable (and, of course, well known) but Settle is unfortunately not content to let it play out by itself. Instead, she keeps layering music into the final scenes, as if they can not stand on their own. Particularly egregious is the prolonging of the tomb scene, where characters take time out to sing about their woes. Nor does Settle know what to do when she has one actor fill in by saying he’ll read the part of the uncast Montague, a purposeless moment that breaks the mood.

 

Like the production, the acting is all over the place. Yet, helped by set designer Laura Jellinek’s undulating wooden platforms and Tilly Grimes’ contemporary costumes, “the two hours traffic of our stage” remains remarkably resilient.

 

This review by Dave Rosenberg appeared in The Hour, Norwalk, Conn., Thursday, July 19, 2012.

 

 

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