By Karen Isaacs
At intermission I was still somewhat undecided about Darko Tresnjak’s production of Romeo and Juliet now at Hartford Stage. I was puzzling over some of the choices he made in this post WWII staging.
But by the end I was totally on board with his concept and the more I thought about the production, the more I became enthusiastic.
We all know the story – after all we study it in school and it has been the inspiration for numerous other works including the iconic West Side Story. Two teens (Juliet and Romeo), the only daughter and only son, respectively of feuding families in Verona, meet and fall instantly in love. But the feud and the violence that goes with it conspires to tear them apart. The opportunity for the families to reconcile is only made possible by their tragic end.
What is so brilliant about this production? First of all, Tresnjak says he drew his inspiration from the Italian neorealist cinema of the late ‘40s and ’50. These works by director/auteurs such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Visconti and others revitalized Italian cinema. Perhaps The Bicycle Thief is the best known of their works but others include Open City and Paisan. Among the characteristics of the neorealist cinema was conversational speech, documentary style, episodic storytelling and much more, including often the use of non-professional actors.
Tresnjak incorporates parts of this into the production; after all, Shakespeare’s plots tend to jump from location to location, from one group to another. There is a sense of documentary in this production as well as true feeling of the streets.
This entire concept might not have worked if he had not selected the right performers. Both casting and his direction got the most out of the cast – many of whom are quite young. They have a naïve exuberance and youthful energy and vitality that is totally realistic.
As I was watching Kaliswa Brewster and Chris Ghaffari as Juliet and Romeo, I could see them as 14 and 18. Their movements, gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice were of young people. Go to any 8th or 9th grade class and you will see the girls behaving exactly as Brewster does. Older high school boys are identical to Ghaffair and his friends.
But it is the handling of the Shakespearean verse that makes this production stand out. It
does sound conversational. This is not stilted poetry recited by rote but lines that come into the mind and then are spoken as if they were never heard before. If you are waiting for some big “ta-da” before the most famous lines, you will be disappointed; but if you want these familiar lines to sound fresh and new, you will get that.
It is not just Brewster and Ghaffari who are so good. The other actors who play Romeo’s friends and the younger members of the Capulet clan are equally good. These are exuberant young men with the emotional outbursts and lack of control so common in that age group. Wyatt Fenner plays Mercutio, Romeo’s friend, as the teen boy who is always fooling around and shooting his mouth off.
Many judge any production by the famous balcony scene. In Tresnjak’s staging Romeo cannot keep himself from trying to climb up to Juliet. They aren’t experienced lovers, but young people caught in first passion.
The adults are just as good. Too often both the nurse, here played by Kandis Chappell and Friar Lawrence, played by Charles Janasz become humorous figures – they are played for laughs as doddering old fools. Neither of these two performers fall into that trap. Chappell plays the nurse as a middle-aged woman who understands the world and tries to coach Juliet. Yes, she is momentarily thrilled by the illicit young romance but she is enough of a realist to try to persuade Juliet the other course that her parents want. Likewise, Friar Lawrence is sensible and caring, who tries to do everything he can to both help and save the young lovers.
Juliet’s parents have more important roles than the rather bland Montague and his wife, who only appears in the early scenes. Capulet, played by Timothy D. Stickney, is a man accustomed to getting his way, whether it is controlling the behavior of his nephew Tybalt at the party or arranging the marriage of Juliet to Paris. He is explosive and his anger is truly frightening. You fear for Juliet when she dares to reject the proposed marriage. Celestse Ciulla plays Lady Capulet as a woman who is being eaten alive by her hatred of the Montagues and her desire for vengeance for the death of Tybolt. You feel her hatred.
Jonathan Louis Dent is a menacing Tybalt. This is a man who like his uncle has an
explosive temper and an unforgiving nature. You quickly sense that he will be trigger to light the explosions. Julien Seredowych plays Paris, Juliet’s approved suitor, as a more staid, conservative and mature person. It is easy to see why Juliet with her enthusiasms does not warm up to him.
Once again, Tresnjak has also done the scenic design. When you enter the theater, you see a cement wall marked in squares with ledges holding bouquets of flowers and candles. At first I thought it was the “Juliet wall” where lovers leave messages to Juliet, made popular in the book and film Letters to Juliet. But
later, I felt it was the wall of a mausoleum where people were buried; there were names etched on the various squares. You also see a large rectangular pool like structure filled with while pebbles or gravel. Perhaps it is the basin for a destroyed fountain. I have to admit that it distracted me at times; either from the noise of crunching stones or my concern for the actors’ feet when they are walking on it barefoot or in sandals.
Added to all of this is the fine lighting by Matthew Richards, sound by Jane Shaw and costumes, which have an authentic late 1940s – early ’50s appearance, by Ilona Somogyi.
Hartford Stage has a long history of outstanding Shakespeare productions. This one is just another in a long list. While I thought both Hamlet and MacBeth (both directed by Tresnjak) were better, this production is also absolutely emotionally riveting.
Romeo and Juliet is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through Sunday, March 20. For tickets visit hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151.
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