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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Romeo and Juliet
By Elyse Sommer
Frears' "vision" is a case of trying to blend something old (the basic text) with a decidedly new look aimed at stepping up the Bard's appeal to that much sought-after young audience. Thus he scuttles the Prologue and has a high decibel opening number from the Los Mercedes del Fuego four-member band and vocalist Lisa Birnbaum set the scene. The first act also features some animated dancing along with this propulsive music. But Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins can rest easy in their graves. Michael Friedman's music and Tracy Bersley's choreography are unlikely to eclipse West Side Story, that most inventive of all Romeo and Juliet adaptations.
In keeping with the punk rock flavor, costume designer Jenny Mannis has seen to it that the look of the large cast of characters (no major character excisions as in some updates) runs the style gamut -- from East Village chic (tatoos, tight jeans and biker gear, a Mohawk hairdo for one Verona lad and foppishness translated into cross-gender dress and necklace for another) to upper East Side modish suits and gowns for the senior Capulets and Montagues. Nothing very Latinesque about any of this.
Since Shakespeare wrote to entertain I have no problem with this sort of trendiness; that is, if there's a point to it and it's handled with consistency. One of my favorite and quite extreme new/old productions of this play was R&J in which Joe Calarco, who so ably directed Barrington Stage's Burnt Part Boys (review) earlier this season, had four boarding school boys play all the parts. But by the time we get to the intermission of this R&J even Mr. Frears has more or less abandoned his Emperor's Clothes concept. The band is gone and a the actors are allowed to focus on the words and characters -- and with more satisfying results.
Typical of the eye-on-the-box office movie star casting trend, Williamstown has cast Emmy Rossum, a nineteen-year-old film star as Juliet. Rossum is lovely to look at but listening to her speak some of the Bard's most poetic lines, especially during the famous balcony scene, is another matter. Her Romeo, Austin Lysy, is a more seasoned stage actor. However, the usually excellent actor fails to project the particular sex appeal of an attractive, street-smart older guy for an innocent girl hardly into her teens. In fact, he initially comes across as so disengaged that it's easier to believe that he's slightly drugged than passionately in love. Though I recall a pill popping Romeo and the punk rock aura would make it believable for Lysy's Romeo to actually be high on something, I don't think it was either the actor's or the director's intent to give that impression.
Fortunately for the audience, the second act does find Rossum becoming a bit more more assured and Lysy appearing high strictly on the Bard's beautiful language. This improvement applies even more to some of the older members of cast. Daniel Oreskes, a frequent Shakespearian, gets to dig into the role of the authoritarian Capulet and Enid Graham has some good moments as his Lady. Kristine Nielsen adds a nice earthy touch to the role of the Nurse and Bill Camp stands out as Friar Laurence. The Montagues (Sandra Shipley and Paul O'Brien) are unfortunately underwhelming throughout.
Of the non-equity cast, Greg Hildreth deserves a hand for his colorful Benvolio. But, with the exception of Oreskes, Camp and Nielsen, the play's undisputed star is fight director Rick Sordelet and the most entertaining scenes are the bloody, grunt and groan filled fight scenes that dispose of Mercutio (Benjamin Walker), Tybalt (Auberjonois) and Paris (Joe Plummer). Even here, however, Frears introduces guns and switchblade knives for the sake of a new look, but ultimately relies on good old-fashioned sword play to carry those big fight scenes.
Like the second WTF main stage production, Romeo and Juliet is handsomely staged. Takeshi Kata's two level set features a circular staircase that's something of a challenge to the actors having to navigate it at one side and that all-important balcony at the other. A bare raised platform accommodates a variety of scenes, from the musical opening to the double death scene and the Capulet and Montague families' reconciliation-- a scene which, no matter what one's quibbles about concept and uneven performances, is an indestructibly moving finale.
After this big cast production , the WTF main stage season concludes with a two-hander, Double Double, a collaboration of artistic director Roger Rees and Rick (The Jersey Boys) Elice.
For more quotations from this and other Shakespeare works and links to reviews of other Romeo and Julio productions, check out our Shakespeare Page.