It's fun to watch a production of Romeo and Juliet in an auditorium full of middle- and high-school students, as I did when I attended Openstage Theatre's final dress rehearsal in Fort Collins. The students' giggles at the raunchy bits, half-comprehending response to the milieu and genuine grief at the outcome -- not to mention the snatches of excited conversation at intermission about who came to the show with whom and why -- all served as reminders that this is a play about very immature people. Romeo and Juliet are feckless, besotted, full of romantic notions, and hormone-blinded to the possible consequences of their actions, and the script has all the poetry, lyricism and directness of young love and a young playwright. But the middle-aged world surrounds Romeo and Juliet -- not only the unremitting hatred of their two families (it's hard watching these scenes without thinking of the ancient enmities currently threatening us all), but the everyday cynicisms and calculations of adulthood: survival, money, authority, what happens to a woman alone or a child turned out of the house (in our world as well as Shakespeare's), the real meaning of exile, and intra-family violence: In this production, Juliet's father, Lord Capulet (played with vigor by L. Michael Scovel) transforms from a kindly elder to a raging abuser in front of our eyes.
Director Judith Allen has placed a great deal of focus on the society around the lovers. This is reflected not only in an unusually strong emphasis on the smaller and supernumerary roles, but in the set itself -- an encircling wall broken by five or six arched doorways through which actors come and go. There are also detailed setpieces and a plethora of realistic props. This design gives Allen the flexibility of movement Shakespeare requires, but it's also distracting as scene-setters -- admittedly costumed characters in the play -- walk endlessly back and forth, moving props, opening and closing curtains, carting objects off stage or hauling them on.
Still, it's a lively first act, because there's always something happening. We see the men's differing motivations and levels of involvement during the early brawls, watch as Benvolio nurses a bloodied hand, observe the way the servants react to their masters and Verona's young women to the volatile young men. The fights, staged by Geoffrey Kent, who also plays Romeo, are exciting and intense, with leaping bodies and flying fruit. In a symmetrical arrangement, Openstage's Juliet, Jessica Valley Freestone, has choreographed the dances of the ballroom scene. But by this point, the production feels a bit off-kilter. There's just not enough directorial attention being paid to the lovers themselves. In addition, Kent and Freestone underplay the early scenes. Romeo has been pretty casual in describing his first love, Rosaline, and you expect some contrasting passion when Juliet shows up. But he doesn't seem unduly excited about her, either. Perhaps the actors wanted to avoid cliche and play against expectation, but I found their approach disconcerting. There should be a kind of hush when Romeo and Juliet meet and embark on their beautifully improvised sonnet ("If I profane with my unworthiest hand, this holy shrine, the gentle sin is this..."), but there's an awful lot going on around them, and as they move together for a kiss, a boisterous group of men stumbles on stage. The balcony scene, too, is rather pallid. In fact, there's a distinct lack of chemistry between these otherwise appealing and talented actors.
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The emotion gets ratcheted up a notch or two in the second act, and Romeo and Juliet come more into their own. Freestone's lamentations when Juliet realizes that Romeo has killed her cousin Tybalt are genuinely heart-wrenching and, as Kent collapses at Friar Laurence's cell, we realize just how young, vulnerable and hurt Romeo is.
Director Allen has also made cuts to the script in accordance with her vision. She's kept all the scurrying around and blame apportionment of the last few moments, for example, while excising lines from the balcony scene, Juliet's musings as she waits for Romeo to come to her bed and the bone-chilling hysterics of the potion scene. These may be valid intellectual choices, but they detract from the passion and poetry that drive the play.
This production is buoyed by a lot of energetic performances. Freestone is as fragile, graceful and pretty as one could wish a Juliet to be, and Kent's Romeo has some fine moments. As Mercutio, R. Todd Hoven has a good physicality and a hint of Jim Carrey's raffish charm. Eric Corneliuson's Benvolio bristles with life, and Travis Risner is an oily Tybalt. Shela Jennings gives a generous performance, contributing a clear, empathetic throughline as the Nurse. Rebecca Spafford, who plays Lady Capulet has a strong on-stage presence, though at times she seems stuck in just one emotion: anger. The actors handle the verse with varying levels of success, though none do real justice to its music. Most of them do communicate Shakespeare's meaning, as well as an awareness of the rhythm -- sometimes a bit too much so. When Romeo says, "Would through the airy region stream so bright," you can almost feel him counting off the iambs.
This is an interesting, lively and sometimes moving Romeo and Juliet. If this company can't challenge the Denver Center in terms of production values, its spirit and willingness to engage with the material can.