Romeo and Juliet

By David A. Rosenberg

The pall of death so shrouds the Hartford Stage production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” there’s hardly time for life. Upstage, a wall dominates the playing area with a series of crypts, each one marked with a name, each one with a commemorative vase of flowers, some with lights. Center is a blindingly white gravel pit which could double as a mass grave but here serves various functions: a place of combat, an altar, a bier.

Director and set designer Darko Tresnjak, taking his clue from the play’s opening speech, smothers the production with the trappings of tragedy, a provocative choice though one which allows no other possibilities. When the Chorus, in his opening sonnet, talks of the “pair of star-crossed lovers” and “the fearful passage of their death-marked love,” we all know how this piteous tale will end. We get “death-marked” all right, but “love” is shortchanged.

Tragedy is what it is because it is inevitable. Characters aim too high; their downfall is preordained. Yet they struggle and onlookers must pray they have a chance to succeed.

The Hartford production is meant to mirror Italian neo-realistic films of the 1940s post-war era, a time of dread and famine, of ruins and strife. Accordingly, Tresnjak has costumer Ilona Somogyi dress the actors in muted tones, befitting a black-and-white movie, and the production’s black-and-white motivations.

The long-standing blood-feud between Juliet’s family (the Capulets) and Romeo’s (the Montagues) is front and center. At the beginning of the evening, two ruffians assault a lone female, although we don’t know who they are or who she is or why the attack. Before the evening’s end, there will be corpses a-plenty.

That’s apparently not enough, however: the production gilds the graveyard lilies. Every so often young women glide in on a rolling ladder to exchange the mausoleum’s dying flowers with fresher ones, distracting from whatever action is happening elsewhere. Eventually, we even get a touch of necrophilia. At one point, an elderly man on two canes observes a love scene, a harbinger of the bleak future, a memento mori. Even the program cover, showing stone hands entwined, is an image straight out of a cemetery.

If all of this is, at least, a point of view, a personal take on the play, it’s also a focus switch. Of course we know the lovers are doomed, but shouldn’t there be a moment when we think, hope, they will outrun their fate?

Chris Ghaffari’s Romeo and Kaliswa Brewster’s Juliet are commendably vigorous, two teenagers throwing themselves at each other. But the feeling is one of puppy love, not passion, more dutiful than burning with hot desire. (A better rendering is Franco Zeffirelli’s exhilarating 1968 film.)

Kandis Chappell is a caring Nurse, more fretful and serious than usual. Celeste Ciulla is an unforgiving Lady Capulet, refusing to be reconciled even when the Prince and the script bid her to be, while Timothy D. Stickney is a quick-tempered Capulet. Also fine are Charles Janasz’ as well-meaning, sympathetic Friar Laurence and Jonathan Louis Dent’s as hot-headed Tybalt..

Less commendable are Alex Hanna’s mush-mouthed Benvolio and Julien Seredowych’s ungainly Paris. Wyatt Fenner, unfortunately costumed at one point in bathing trunks and flippers, is an overwrought Mercutio, although his dying while trying to mount his bicycle is startling.

Whatever its drawbacks, the production succeeds in having a consistent tone of gloom and a headlong pace. At nearly three hours, it lasts longer than the vaunted “two hours’ traffic of our stage.” But this tale of woe transcends time, no matter the concept.

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