Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare; version edited by Ron Holgate from A. L. Rowse’s "Contemporary Shakespeare." Directed by Ron Holgate
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Where is she? And how does she?"
For NYSTI’s new stage version of the classic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet an appropriate headline, also taken from the text of the play, might be "misshapen chaos." Set not in Verona in an earlier time, but in contemporary Fallujah, there is a benign relevance given to the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. One family are Sunni and the other are Shiite. Never the twain shall meet, it seems, as their beliefs and rituals and modes of dress are completely at odds.
Juliet’s father has arranged a marriage for his daughter, more of a business merger, with Paris, a man of his own generation whose lust for young Juliet borders on the obscene. Escalus, the Prince has been replaced by a military Captain of the Iraqi army. Friar Lawrence, once a Franciscan, is now an Imam who mixes up potions without the help of a friendly apothecary. The chorus who delivers the Prologue to the play is now an American photojournalist. Friar John has become a CIA agent in dark glasses and the Prince’s servants are American soldiers. Somehow it all works.
So does the cleaned-up language. Thees, thous, wasts and such are replaced by modern versions. That aids the actors in getting across the meanings of their lines. This company mixes professional actors with students and to have them all sound out their syllables with equal skill really helps.
On a physically dramatic stage set by Garrett E. Wilson, in delectable costumes by Karen Kammer, with background music beautifully composed by Will Severin, and the whole thing exquisitely lit by John McLain, this is a beautiful show to watch. The fight scenes have been choreographed wonderfully by David Bunce and there is an almost "West Side Story" brilliance to them, particularly the death of Tybalt.
Anthony CeFala plays that young man with a menace and a sneer and he is never likeable which makes one wonder what Juliet sees in him; she seems to have better taste. His death is never bitter, only regrettable. David Bunce as the Captain delivers a solid performance in a role that is never easy and in this version visually unappealing.
John Romeo is an elegant Imam and Ron Komora a sexy and slightly silly Paris. In this version he not a lovesick swain who dies in Juliet’s tomb, by the way. He is gone with the wind once she’s dead. Joel Aroeste as Capulet is dynamic and strong and his renunciation of his reluctant daughter is staggering. Likewise, as his wife, Mary Jane Hansen creates a memorable and beautiful blonde Sunni.
On the other side of the plaza is Carole Edie Smith and John McGuire as the older Montagues. Steeped in religious tradition, they are a delicate alternative to the neighboring Capulets. McGuire has a very special moment in the final scene as he weeps over his dead son and his equally dead wife - a speech I cannot find in my versions of the Shakespeare. While moving, this is definitely a rewrite by someone, perhaps Holgate, the director/adaptor.
The young and arresting presence of Mercutio as played by Matt Stapleton almost turns the play over into his hands. His death scene, with its classic renunciation of both families, was both brilliant and effective. Also quite good in this production are Anthony Rossi as Peter, Matthew J. Sekellick as Benvolio, Paul Warren Smith and Jacob Fisch as servants to the Capulets and especially Anny DeGange as Nurse. Here is an actress who understands that emotions have gamuts and how to run right through them up and down and sideways. There is nothing she leaves to chance; she presents up-front and in plain sight every feeling, opinion and emotion granted to her character.
This brings us to the principals. A very good looking pair they are. A romantic image they create. Kate Hettesheimer does well with this large role, a role that seemed even larger and longer than usual for some reason. Perhaps it is the lack of youthful enthusiasm for things which has been replaced, by the director I assume, with a languid romanticism. Her speech which begins "Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds" never achieved an urgency. Her death somehow felt unfinished. She is a beautiful young woman with a lovely voice and terrific sense of the stage, but as Juliet there was lacking the youngster in love. When the Nurse brings the sad tidings of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment our Juliet spoke her emotional lines with a sense of separation from the reality and that isn’t the best way to get our sympathy or keep our interest.
Her Romeo is played by Brian Nemiroff who, in just the opposite set of rhythms, seemed always in a rush to get to the end of his current statement. Good looking, good emotional presence in every scene, he never seemed lost in his love for Rosaline or in his adoration for Juliet. The fire was in his voice, but never in his face. It seemed his inevitable goal to get to the end, whatever it might be, without missing a beat. Consequently the love scenes in this edition left me somewhat cold. When Paris’ marriage to Juliet was discussed in such a business-like manner I wondered if Capulet might not make a better deal with his neighbor’s son instead, for Romeo’s passion seemed sexual and somehow invasive, just like Paris’ leer.
Wonderful performances surround the romance in a stunningly beautiful production. NYSTI always delivers a quality show that wouldn’t be found elsewhere in the region and this is no exception. You just have to suspend your belief in romance and move it on over to Peace in the Middle East, at least among its own citizens..
Brian Nemiroff and Kate Hettesheimer; photo:
Mercutio (Matt Stapleton) relays tales of the fairy Queen Mab to Benvolio (Matt Sekellick), Balthathar (John Scala) and Abraham (Jared Barton); photo:
Romeo and Juliet plays at the Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College in Troy, NY through March 24. For tickets and information call 518-274-3256