Shakespeare and Company, Romeo and Juliet

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Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare & Co. New England Tour
Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare & Co. New England Tour

directed by Jonathan Croy

Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, May 21 – June 7
Benjamin Brinton, Paul D’Agostino, Kaitlin Henderson, Alyssa Hughlett, Kelley Johnston, Sean Kazarian, Daniel Kurtz

Shakespeare and Company are responding to the economic downturn and their own drastically reduced budget with a blaze of activity. This year’s season will be longer and more packed than ever. It will also mark the transition from one artistic director to another: Tony Simotes will replace founder Tina Packer, who will be concentrating on directing and long-term goals for the company. The summer season has begun early with Romeo and Juliet, performed primarily by a cast of seven young actors who have not yet finished their training, in a production designed specifically for teens and pre-teens. Under the direction of Jonathan Croy, who has worked with high school and middle school children for many years, these actors have spent the winter months touring New England and New York. Now they finally get to play before adults back at the home base.

While one certainly can’t approach this condensed Romeo and Juliet for juniors as one would a mainstage production, it amounts to more than a demonstration of Shakespeare & Company’s commendable education program. I enjoyed it quite a bit, in fact, mainly for the skilful, lightening-fast adaptation and direction, its simple but handsome look, and the fine acting of most of the players. In order to seize and hold the attention of his youthful audiences, Jonathan Croy made sure to include adolescent mannerisms they could identify with, plenty of action, lots of swordplay, and even more bawdy gestures to gloss Shakespeare’s suggestive double entendres—far too many (I may as well say it now.) for grown-up tastes. I also found myself wondering what particular age group would find such a barrage of obscenity amusing.

This, I thought, was the weakest aspect of an otherwise excellent production, which took pains to present young audiences with the essentials of Shakespeare. The adaptation was true to the spirit of the abridged travelling productions of Shakespeare’s own time, and the cuts preserved a sense of structure and topography. The verse was for the most part clearly spoken with a sense of its syntax and poetry, and often beautifully delivered. Eventually, the audiences were exposed to speeches, although with cuts. Gradually, the constant body language was reduced, giving more the impression of the character standing on his or her two hind legs, delivering a discreetly extended account of his or her inner perceptions and feelings. In his introductory essay, Jonathan Croy emphasises his view that Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy is driven by character and not fate, and he makes this absolutely clear in the production, leaving his target audience with these humane realities to ponder. Atmosphere, time, and place were conveyed by costume. Even the swordplay was well-executed. Through the death of Mercutio Shakespeare’s play is presented as a broad comedy. It takes on its tragic character after the intermission, as things begin to go wrong, and the young lovers speed to their destruction.

The lights go up on a faux marbre backdrop with an appealing Italianate grotesque face, seemingly carved in porphyry, in the center. An ornate metal archway stands at stage left. In a prelude, the actors appear in their handsome costumes, which seem well-worn, as the wardrobe of an Elizabethan theatre company should be. They wear Italianate masks, encircled by the rays of the sun. As the action begins, we see the youth of Verona are already going at it from the very beginning. The first interchanges are punctuated with swordplay and fighting, combining exciting action with broad slapstick, nicely tailored to juvenile taste. The seven actors, of course, must take on two or three roles, and in these first scenes we see a dizzying sequence of character, costume, and gender changes, which the actors managed confidently and with flair. Kaitlin Henderson was especially adroit in her transformations between a rapier-happy Benvolio and an assured but unaware Lady Capulet. She inhabited both of these roles to the full, as well as a hysterical “Sister Joanna.” Daniel Kurtz, who played Tybalt, Paris, and the Prince also showed a fine sense of establishing himself in different roles economically through his posture and a few gestures. Paul D’Agostino, since he played primarily Friar Lawrence and the Nurse, obviously had great fun shifting between the friar and the Juliet’s earthy care-giver. Kelley Johnston also maintained an effective presence as Balthasar, Peter, and Montague. Sean Kazarian’s Mercutio presented the most serious challenge of the evening. His constant movement, incessant flow of ribald gesture, and uncontrolled vocal excesses became tedious quickly enough, and then irritating, but it was not entirely wide of the mark. It was effective to see the character as a time bomb, an unstable entity who could cause serious trouble. It has long been fashionable to play down Mercutio’s charm in favor of a warped or perverted psychology, but this Mercutio was singularly repellent, and there was not much room left for any detail or depth in his relationship with Romeo. In this production, he is the loose cannon, bordering on psychopath, for whom Romeo, decent chap that he is, pleads tolerance, much to his own disadvantage. In his Queen Mab speech, he and the director were not ready to present the audience with a full speech. Hence it was accompanied by wild gyrations and rolling on the ground, which relieved it of most of its sense of verbal acrobatics. No, I didn’t care much for this Mercutio, but I heard from a number of people associated with the production that the kids loved him.

With this reduced cast, as much or more attention is loaded on the star-crossed lovers. Benjamin Brinton, an import from Utah, gave us a truly impressive Romeo. He showed a genuine feeling for Shakespeare’s language, spoke his lines carefully and beautifully, and elicited sympathy in every scene. Already early on more aware and mature than his mates, he never failed to capture our interests. Handsome, as a Romeo should be, he resembled a young Tyrone Power. Alyssa Hughlett, a Texan, threw herself wholeheartedly and imaginatively into a Juliet who was every bit her “pretty age,” given to sulkiness, revolt, and petulant outbursts in the face of adult impositions, but soon ready to offer herself in love. Her Juliet was a consistent, intelligent, and affecting performance, which occasionally overflowed into a shrieky hysteria. This was all fine in terms of her conception of the character, but at times the rhythm and shape of the verse fell apart under the stress. There was a trace of this in “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds…” in Act III sc. ii (that is, after Mercutio’s death and the break, and therefore in the tragic part), which was the first speech really to be presented as one, although it was cut, of course, and accompanied by a great deal of movement. Creating that balance between the beauty of the language and the emotions of the character isn’t easy, especially in a character who is still largely a child, but Alyssa Hughlett has all the tools she needs to achieve it in the future.

The balcony scene is played largely for laughs, as Juliet struggles against the calls from within her house. Romeo is allowed to retain more of Shakespeare’s lyrical language and feeling, although Hughlett skilfully folds them into her own part. Mr. Croy’s particular take on this scene was, I thought, a particular success both for the adults in the Bernstein Theater and, I imagine, for the young audiences on the road.

The aims of this production are quite specific, but anyone can enjoy its intelligence, good looks, economy, and energy. In it, Shakespeare, our teenagers, and the adults who come to the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre to see it, have been given their due. It will also serve as an invitation to imagine what it must have been like to be a countryman and get a visit from the Chamberlain’s Men in a plague season.

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