Joel Fink's Romeo and Juliet at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival could have been called The Nurse and Mercutio Show, because those two characters almost romped off with the play. Okay, that's a bit reductive. The production had other strengths and floated a few good ideas, but the climax wasn't heart-wrenching, and none of the other actors inhabited their roles as fully as Brian Caplan did Mercutio and Ethelyn Friend did the Nurse.
The action takes place on a relatively empty stage, with a tall clock on one side and a Victrola suspended in the air on the other. The period is Victorian. The sparse set helps keep the action swift and clean, but it also betrays the production at a couple of important points. One of them is the crucial parting scene after Romeo and Juliet have spent their first and only night together. As the play is written, this scene takes place in her bedroom, but here it occurs on a bare stage in front of the clock. No bed. No place to tumble, no easy way to kiss or touch. No way of conveying to the audience that in the course of this one night, their love has changed from the flashing, soaring dream of a couple of teenage romantics to something based on the genuine communion of mind and flesh.
Later, toward the play's end, the clock is placed on its side to form Juliet's bier. This makes for heavy-handed symbolism and also creates a physically awkward situation for the lovers. Here's Romeo, standing on tiptoe to view his beloved's face. Here's Juliet, thinking Romeo's dead and scrambling off the thing to kiss his lips.
I did like Fink's concept of having a tired, rather malicious voice reading the prologue's lines over the crackly Victrola. It made the story bitter and universal, underscoring the repressiveness of an elderly and conformist society and its deathly effect on its own young.
But here's another directorial conceit I was less sure of: Throughout the play, characters kept cuffing other characters. Lord Capulet was always at it, cuffing his servant Gregory before sending him off to issue invitations to the Capulets' party. Of course, we expect the man to get physically rough with his daughter, Juliet, when she defies him. But the Nurse is quite a cuffer, too. And the holy friar, nasty-tempered and cold, not only cuffs Romeo frequently, but also yanks him around by the ear. I found this distracting. I couldn't tell if it was intended as comical or menacing. (I also couldn't tell what a medieval friar was doing in Victorian England, but that's another story.) Reading the program notes later, I saw that the director had focused on the use of corporal punishment in Victorian society, suggesting that the family feuds and ensuing street brawls that caused the deaths of Romeo and Juliet were the product of a violence that began at home. Perhaps this idea wasn't well enough integrated into the production, or perhaps it was not a good idea in the first place, because nothing like this drives the action in Shakespeare's version of the play.
Katrina Kuntz, as Juliet, and Stephen Louis Grush, as Romeo, are both good-looking, and they look good together. It's a belief among some critics that an actor who is young enough to convey Romeo's or Juliet's impetuous vulnerability is too young to communicate the music of the verse. By the time the vocal richness is there, the dew of youth is gone. Both Kuntz and Grush have an odd way of misapplying stresses, thumping the wrong word in a line. While his performance is effectively charming, toward the play's end, Grush tends to smoosh all his lines together. It's hard not to, because Romeo does a lot of blubbering -- he's not a heroic figure, as we're reminded here, but a sad, scared adolescent. Kuntz plays Juliet as a child at the beginning, answering her parents by rote; even reciting the beautiful sonnet she and Romeo speak when they meet as if reading lines. Reasonable enough. Juliet does, after all, chide Romeo for kissing "by the book." But by the balcony scene, we're ready for some poetry, and it isn't forthcoming. First of all -- a staging problem again -- the lovers are physically too far apart. And second, the acting lacks depth, with Kuntz communicating Juliet's passion by raising her shoulders and giggling.
Just as I'd pretty much given up on her, however, came the potion scene, and the actress was transformed. As tragedy began to overwhelm the action, Kuntz grew into her role; the emotion from then on was full, clear and strong. So strong it carried the music of the lines, and all weird stresses disappeared.
Clarity was what Mercutio and the Nurse -- in their very different ways -- had in spades. When an actor is coming up on a familiar speech, you pretty much know what to expect, but Brian Caplan made the Queen Mab speech funny, surprising and completely new. He made it modern and sexy. He was gracefully loose on his feet. He owned that speech. (Though the ad lib about the "well-hung stars" a few lines later was a bit much.) Despite his talent, Mercutio's death scene wasn't as devastating as I'd expected. This may have been because he had to share it with other actors or because the fight that led up to it was unconvincing.
You could argue about Ethelyn Friend's interpretation of the Nurse -- generally seen as a good-hearted, weak-minded busybody -- but you couldn't look away from her. In keeping with the theme of domestic violence, this Nurse is spiky, eccentric, bossy, sometimes mildly kind in spite of herself and so horny that she at one point kisses the startled Romeo bang on the mouth.
Though I wouldn't say this is an entirely successful production, it does treat the text as something that's both alive and worth exploring -- and that makes it worth seeing.
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