Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
There are so many approaches one can take in doing "Romeo and Juliet". Pure romance, youthful impulsivity, comic mis-direction, pointless violence, generational conflict, foolish scheming, the inevitability of fate, - any or all of these elements can be emphasized in this most familiar, most accessible of tragic love stories. What director John Langs seems to be going for here is a contemporary telling that accents all of those elements in fairly equal proportion, but without any particularly strong statement. As a result, the production feels sufficient but not really satisfying, often striking but rarely overpowering, even and complete, but not particularly affecting. This is a "Romeo and Juliet" that carries us through the action but never really becomes a great journey, generates romance but not passion, ends in sadness and regret, but hardly tragedy.
Lathrop Walker plays Romeo with a curiously detached modernity. While he is handsome and appealing as a romantic hero, we never really get the sense that this is a young man enchanted by the idea of love, intoxicated by idealism and desire, headlong in his pursuit of a reckless romance and heedless of familial and social consequences. This Romeo is just too well grounded, too sensible, and his delivery of the language was clear but mundane, certainly not enraptured. Far more successful was Dana Powers Acheson as Juliet. Not only was this woman convincing as a very young girl, but we could feel her being transported by her words, see her emancipated in her newly released sexuality, ache with the overwhelmingly cruel tricks of circumstance that shape her ironic doom.
The biggest problem, though, was that the two never really had romantic chemistry. There were moments - the balcony scene, which was cleverly played with them on opposite sides of a panel of chain-link fence mounted on wheels, separated but whirling around each other's dizzying orbit - when the sense of seduction had momentum, but more often they seemed to speak to each other, rather than into each other. Most everything in the second act worked better than the first, primarily because in the first they failed in the key objective, to establish that unexplainable, undeniable connection which empowers their breathless romance and drives it at such a dangerous pace. In the second, more external events and mechanisms drive the action, and they become the objects, the victims perhaps, of the consequences, rather than the immediate, causative agents. Unfortunately, unless the depth of the relationship is created in the first act, the second act cannot achieve the depth of the irony.
There were elements where the production really did shine. Erica Bradshaw was fresh and emphatic as Nurse, giving the role a contemporary African-American style that felt natural and authentic, never contrived. She also spoke the language beautifully, and had a warmth that connected her with Juliet, and a presence that established her importance. Big presence was also evident in the role of Tybalt, played with striking assertion by Garlyn Punao. In fact, his Tybalt was strong enough that I found myself wishing the play had been "Tybalt and Juliet". That would have generated some heat. Equally convincing in an entirely different way was the inventive and intriguing Mercutio played by Hans Altwies. Blending outrageous style and an expressive physicality, he was a great personality and his hapless death as a result of Romeo's being in the wrong place at the wrong time (a recurring problem), resulted in convincing anger and bitterness. I was also impressed with Mark Chamberlin as Lord Capulet, an authoritarian father who had stature and strength, and who delivered every word of the text as if it were as natural as breathing. Credit also has to be given to Fight Director Gordon Carpenter for some of the best stage combat I've seen in a long time, and that was particularly important and meaningful in a play so dependent on giving reality to the dangers of slashing swords.
This production was not entirely successful, but neither was it a complete failure. For every fine invention (the revolving fence) there was another (Juliet singing a contemporary song before Romeo awakes after their only night of love) that completely takes us out of the play. Ultimately, though, I think that what this production lacked was a sense of the great wave of inevitability, of fate, that carries everyone toward the unhappy ending, the sense that once this love is initiated nothing and no one can do anything to change its course. That also implies that we must be convinced that this is just that great a love, and it is in generating that scale and dimension to the connection between these two very young people that this "Romeo and Juliet" falls short.