Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Theater Review: Romeo & Juliet -- Hartford Stage

The set. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Wherefore Art Thou in a Gravel Pit, Romeo?
By Lauren Yarger
A dark, modern-age Romeo and Juliet takes the stage in Darko Tresnjak’s neorealism production featuring a gravel pit. Wherefore, I am not exactly sure. (And for your non Shakespeare types, “wherefore” doesn’t mean “where,” but “why?”

The pit sits down center on the set designed by Director Tresnjak featuring a massive mausoleum backdrop with reams of square crypts, whose dark and gloom (thanks to excellent lighting by Matthew Richards) can’t be masked by flowers adorning them (or by cheerful maidens who swing by on a rolling ladder to keep the blooms fresh). A slab juts out to create the famous balcony –significant that the few moments of joy experienced by the young couple (on Shakespeare’s pages, if not effectively portrayed here) spring from death.

The set becomes almost a character itself in Tresnjak’s tribute to the look of 1940s Italian films which focused on shapes and colors from daily life (Costume Designer helps create the feel with period-looking suits, hats and simple dresses and negligees). We’re just not entirely sure why it is the focus of the Bard’s classic tale of crossed lovers.

At first impression the pit, with its drains in the surface of tile surrounding it, looks like a rock-filled version of the pool in Metamorphoses. It’s not filled with water (the drains later prove to be vents for fog) or even with blood, as I might have expected after seeing Ivo van Hove’s tense adaptation of A View from the Bridge on Broadway in which barefoot characters  ended up in a bloody heap in a similar pit.

Romeo and Juliet’s Verona, Italy pit just offers rocks (and a couple of times an ornate slab arises from them to offer a platform for staging). I winced when a few barefooted actors walk through them and pondered the significance of crunching as others walked on the stones with footwear (Sound Design by Jane Shaw, who also provides sound effects like cars driving by or party revelry to enhance the scenes), but alas, methinks I never did get it, even when a character rode around it on a bicycle.

So I focused instead on one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the tale of woe about Juliet (Kaliswa Brewster) and her Romeo (Chris Ghaffari) and found it fairly uneven. Some performances are strong and bring delight. Charles Janasz is an amusing Friar Laurence and so commands the stage with his presence that the character becomes a central part of the story, rather than just a necessary prop to bring the lovers to their deaths.

Ghaffari is a handsome Romeo and in one inspired moment when Tresnjak has him sit among the audience to view the Capulet party at which he first spots Juliet, he wins our hearts with genuine charm. Timothy D. Stickney and Celeste Ciulla give fine turns as Juliet’s parents (even if Ciulla doesn’t look old enough to be the mother of Brewster, who doesn’t look 14) as do Alex Hanna as Romeo’s friend and cousin Benvolio, Julien Seredowych as a particularly swarthy Paris whom Juliet’s parents want her to wed and whom we rarely think so much about, and Jonathan Louis Dent as Juliet’s menacing cousin Tybalt, whose death ends with Romeo’s being banished by Prince Escalus (Bill Christ) and triggers a sad ending for the star-crossed lovers.

Kaliswa Brewster and Chris Ghaffari
The fight scenes (using knives rather than swords, to be true to the period for this production) are directed by Steve Rankin and lack realism or excitement in their staging. Also falling flat is Brewster’s Juliet as she recites lines in a monotone. We never see her passion for Romeo, feel her despair at being forced to wed Paris or enjoy much of the meaning in Shakespeare’s text. A line like “Thy lips are warm!” -- usually pregnant with despair, grief and astonishment -- simply gets uttered as part of some dialogue delivered without intonation (Voice and Text Coaching by Claudia Hill-Sparks).

The death of Mercutio (Wyatt Fenner) is over dramatic. Juliet’s nurse (Kandis Chappell), is an enigma as she is played contrary (though well) to expectations. Usually she is a portly, jovial sort offering friendship and comfort to Juliet – and much of the play’s humor. Here, she is thin, elegant and regal -- almost more so than Lady Capulet. She is serious, a second mother to Juliet, and her humor is lost to the somber feel of the production.

The puzzlements outweigh the insight for this production. Am I jaded by the fact that I like Shakespeare plays produced traditionally? Perchance I protest too much? I don’t think so, because I really wanted to like it – a favorite play helmed by a director I like (his Hamlet and Macbeth, for which he also designed the sets, were triumphs). I just couldn’t take the plunge into the pit for this one.

Romeo and Juliet plays through March 20 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Special matinee 2 pm Wednesday, Feb. 24.  Tickets $25-$95.  (860) 527-5151; www.hartfordstage.org.

Special events:
  • AfterWords Discussion Tuesdays, Feb. 23 and March 1 and Wednesday, Feb. 24. Join members of the cast and the artistic staff for a free discussion, immediately following select 7:30 pm. performances on Tuesday or the Wednesday matinee.
  • Open Captioned Performances, Feb. 28, 2 and 7:30 pm for patrons who are deaf or have hearing loss. 
  • Audio Described Performance, March 5 at 2 pm. For patrons who are blind or have low vision.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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