By Karen Isaacs
Romeo & Juliet is so familiar to most of us, that sometimes attending a performance gives you that “what, again?” feeling.
That vanishes in the production currently at Westport Country Playhouse through Nov. 19.
Director Mark Lamos has always had a sure hand with Shakespeare and he proves it once again. Many years ago, at Hartford Stage he directed a production that has remained in my memory as one of the best I’ve ever seen.
I wondered if he could do it again. This production may not reach the heights of that previous one – or my memory may be playing tricks on me – but it is a very good production in all its aspects.
You may be surprised at the emotional response you will have to this piece; after all we know the ending. You may also be surprised because Juliet, played wonderfully by Nicole Rodenburg, is not your usual petite, very slender Juliet. She still looks like teenager, but she is taller and has some substance to her. She’s not Calista Flockhart, who was Juliet in the Hartford production.
But Rodenburg convinces us that she is that willful teenager who so easily becomes infatuated and so determinedly opposes her father’s wishes.
But what I remember most about this production is the energy of the ensemble cast, the boyishness of Romeo’s friends, the violent anger of Juliet’s father.
This Romeo & Juliet is more an ensemble piece than one focusing only on the young lovers. Felicity Jones Latta is a garrulous and funny Nurse without seeming to milk the laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Friar Lawrence more anguished at the outcome. Peter Francis James isn’t your doddering old monk but a man of action who is dismayed when circumstances makes plan go all awry.
You can also point to the rough and tumble enthusiasm of James Cusati-Moyer as Romeo and his friends, Cole Francum as Paris and Tyler as Benvolio. These are truly teenagers who explode with energy and immaturity.
The fights and sword play were deftly choreographed by Michael Rossmy, the fight director.
Michael Yeargan has created a set that looks like a Renaissance tapestry or painting. It is filled with incredible detail and helps compensate for the minimal furniture on stage. One small complaint is that the balcony on the right of stage is so close to the front of the stage, that the view of anyone sitting on the side is partially blocked. I was craning my neck to see some of the balcony scene, despite sitting on the aisle.
To complement the set, Fabian Fidel Aguilar has created wonderful costumes that are inspired by the period.
Lamos has lighting designer Matthew Richard use soft, misty lighting at times, and bright sunlight at others. Only the balcony scene, a night scene, was too brightly lit. You did not sense that a moon was out.
Lamos has kept this play set in 15th-16th Italy. We aren’t transported to modern day or another country.
This Romeo & Juliet is a brisk, energetic and absorbing production. No, it isn’t the “best ever” but it is well worth a visit.
For tickets, contact Westport Playhouse.