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A CurtainUp Review
Romeo and Juliet by Elyse Sommer
It's been more than fifty years since Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier brought Romeo and Juliet to Broadway. The acting couple, then the darlings of stage and screen, spared no expense on their production which led New York's chief critic Brooks Atkinson to begin his review as follows: "Much scenery; no play."
No one can accuse the Acting Company of too much scenery. Ming Cho Lee's set is a model of utter simplicity. The 24-member cast, many playing dual roles, features actors with solid experience, but no stars. This is an ensemble production dedicated to making one of literature's most enduring love stories accessible to young audiences, but with the Bard's beautiful language intact.
Since there is no curtain, audiences arriving early at the handsomely renovated New Victory Theater have a chance to take in the bare stage with five rear doorways to create a passage way for the actors to enter and exit. And of course there's the balcony without which no respectable Romeo and Juliet is complete. After the lights dim and go on again, we have two narrators straddling a tableau of young men who explode into a street fight. Bravo to director James Bundy for this dramatic launch into the often told tale of the Capulet/Montague feud.
The production is traditional. All the characters are in place -- the incredibly young lovers voicing incredibly mature feelings, well-meaning allies, (Juliet's nurse and a priest), doing their meddling best to avoid tragedy, and sword-wielding peers (Mercutio, Tybalt and Paris) finding themselves on the wrong end of a sword. The merging of the five acts into two parts, (common in most multi-act plays revived nowadays), works well, as does the shift from the original time frame to the 19th century. The time change also affords the talented Ann Hould-Ward an opportunity to design an eye-appealing wardrobe. The almost complete absence of furnishings, except for Juliet's bed and bier in the second part also serves the production well. It keeps the focus on the story's essential human element.
That's the good news about this production. On the minus side of the critical scale are the misfires in the acting department. The only cast member to truly project as Shakespeare should be projected is Daniel Pearce as Mercutio who, alas, dies in part one. Heather Robison is a lovely Juliet and gains in forcefulness and emotional dimension as the play progresses. The gangly appearance of Hamish Linklater lends an authenticity to Romeo as a teen aged lover that is a refreshing change from past Romeos well past the age of believability. Unfortunately, his performance leaves something to be desired in terms of stature and line delivery. Liza Tharps errs on the side of over-acting as Juliet's nurse whereas Erika Rolfsrud, who actually looks as if she could be Juliet's mother, is so cold and distant that her grief at the end is less than convincing. Juliet's father, as played by James Farmer, is less a powerful Lord than an ill-tempered bully who more often than not comes across as having had one drink too many.
While I'm carping, the set's passageway lost some of its effectiveness because the actors movements in and out of the doors tended to be too busy and energetic and, well, noisy. On the other hand, Robert Wierzel's lights the set splendidly and Kim D. Sherman's music enhances the overall production.
As you'll notice in the box below, this production is in New York for just one week, so readers in other cities are as apt to catch it as New York audiences. Whether you see it here or elsewhere, bear in mind that while Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare for young people, young does not mean as young as six to ten. Parents who brought their early elementary school children to the matinee performance found themselves with understandably restless companions. The New Victory does put on many events for all ages, but this isn't one of them.