The “star-crossed lovers” are back, sort of, in a vigorous production at Westport Country Playhouse that favors pugnacity over poetry. Set in Renaissance Verona, the Mark Lamos-directed rendering of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is beautiful to behold. Michael Yeargan’s smashing set design features a reproduction of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 14th-century painting, “The Allegory of Good Government,” an ironic backdrop for a play about quarrelsome citizens.
Vibrant, even as passionate as it is in delineating the violent rivalry between two clans, the evening lacks sexual passion. While it moves quickly, features impressive fight scenes and sprinkles some fine performances throughout, it gives short shrift to the central love story. Not that we need a radical interpretation – unlike a recent New York showing, the hero does not ride in on a motorcycle. Lamos is true to the times and characters, tinged with contemporary anger. These are people with no time for niceties, people aching to fight, not talk.
The story is, of course, familiar. Two households, the Capulets and Montagues, have a long-standing feud which breaks out into the Renaissance version of fisticuffs. Eventually, after a Capulet and a Montague are killed, punishment lands on Romeo, a Montague, who has secretly married Juliet, a Capulet. Add Friar Laurence, a potion that apes death, suicide and reconciliation and . . . well, you know.
Lamos confronts the audience with urgency, veering from tragedy to melodrama. That over-the-top dramatic form is particularly risible here when Juliet’s family mourns her seeming demise, evoking audience titters.
Unlike, say, the “Romeo and Juliet” sequence in the film “Shakespeare in Love,” the central love story’s temperature doesn’t rise much above lukewarm. We’re neither appalled nor empathetic about what happens to the lovers. Lamos, a whiz at stage pictures, mainly triumphs with crowd scenes, helped immeasurably by fight director Michael Rossmy.
Contrarily, by substituting intensity for subtlety, Lamos invigorates many characters. Patrick Andrews’ Mercutio is the class showoff, witty and perceptive, mocking Romeo while suggesting an erotic attachment to him. The ever-watchable Felicity Jones Latta is flighty yet moving as the garrulous Nurse. Alison Cimmet and Triney Sandoval are strong-willed as the frustrated Capulets, while Peter Francis James is both sympathetic and guilt-ridden as Friar Laurence. As Romeo, James Cusati-Moyer is restrained as the “virtuous and well-governed youth,” unfortunately unmatched by Nicole Rodenburg’s lightly drawn, non-descript Juliet.
Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s costumes, complete with male codpieces, are gorgeous. Matthew Richards’ lighting design captures a centuries-old glow and David Budries’ sound design is evocative. Thanks to voice and speech consultant Shane Ann Younts, the dialogue is crisp without being too plummy befitting a not entirely successful production that mirrors our nasty, prejudiced, superficial times.