The set for the Denver Center's Romeo and Juliet is austere. The play opens on a stage that is almost bare save for two coffins, the first on the thrust part of the stage, the second behind a transparent dividing curtain. Through the evening, most of the action will take place in front of that curtain, but the black-clad figures moving behind it will also be visible. Director Scott Wentworth is emphasizing the death-haunted aspects of this play from the very beginning. Romeo and Juliet represent the essence of impetuous young love, passionate and innocently carnal, struggling to survive in a world of hatred and conflict, and the spare setting puts the focus squarely on them and the society they inhabit.
Whenever I see the play, I remember Kenneth MacMillan's achingly beautiful ballet, set to Prokofiev's music. In it, the purity of the youngsters' love is represented by the supple lines of the dancers' bodies, their fluidity and grace. I think of Juliet's small, exultant, tripping steps in the balcony scene and the way Romeo sinks to his knees, his arms outstretched in a gesture that, according to my onetime dancer daughter, says, "I give you my heart," but to me expresses simple joy and wonderment at the existence of the astonishing young creature in front of him.
Lenne Klingaman's Juliet and Charles Pasternak's Romeo aren't the lithe figures of the Romantic imagination, however. They're quite solidly and definitely of this world. Juliet is a funny, thumping kid, sometimes playful, sometimes petulant. And Romeo looks more like a prosperous young businessman than a stripling — in part because of his sober black costume (not to mention the very whiskery photo of him in a lip lock with Juliet on the program cover). He also speaks in mellifluous, actory tones. These interpretations are charming during the early part of the play. The balcony scene is cleverly staged — there's no actual balcony — and both actors find a sweet humor in the script. It's nice to see an unaffectedly down-to-earth Juliet, and I assumed Romeo's declamatory style was meant to show that at this point he was more in love with love itself than with her.
Romeo and Juliet
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 24, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
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But later, what strikes me as a major directorial whopper occurs. The parting after the couple's single night together is usually staged on or near a bed, with Juliet in a white shift. But here, both she and Romeo are fully clothed. After all the poetic goodbye stuff about larks and nightingales, they begin groping at each other through layers of heavy fabric in what must be the clumsiest and least sensual embrace this mythic couple has ever shared. They've just consummated their love, for heaven's sake, and we're thinking that from here on, she'll be a bit more grown up and his words will start to emanate from the deepest part of his being. But though both actors deliver genuine emotion as the action hurtles toward tragedy, he remains mellifluous, and neither seems to have been changed much by events.
There are other missteps. The black figures that are so effective at the beginning eventually become obtrusive. And when the apothecary who sells Romeo poison shuffles on in a black hood and Darth Vader death mask, it's hard not to laugh.
On the plus side, the play is presented uncut so that we can appreciate its full depth and contour; it's also filled with resonant visual images, and the cast is generally strong. Jeanne Paulsen is an empathetic nurse, and Matthew Simpson delivers an elegant Tybalt. Todd Adams's grimmer-than-usual Mercutio is fine — though I do think his leaping on top of Romeo to indicate a barely sublimated homosexual longing is a bit much (not the longing, but the leaping). Matt Zambrano provides humor as Peter and context as Chorus. I've never understood why Friar Lawrence gives a long speech at the end of the play going point by point through the plot we've just witnessed — whether he's trying to save his own hide or speaking out because he believes only truth can stop the bloodletting — but Sam Gregory's gentle, thoughtful interpretation of the role convinces me it's the latter. And when Juliet turns to Lady Capulet for comfort after she's been ordered to marry Paris, Kathleen McCall's beautiful, layered response communicates all the anger and pain of her own experience as a teenage bride.