Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniela Varon.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I’ll prove more true than those that have the cunning to be strange."
Susannah Millonzi as Juliet; photo: Kevin Sprague
Juliet Capulet, age 12 or thereabouts, falls in love with Romeo Montague, age near 16, and the two of them are wed by her confessor, his confessor. This man, Friar Laurence, is one of the very few things they have in common. Their families are long-standing enemies, though why they are such we never learn. What we know about them is this: they hate, they fight, they hate some more, so when their children marry it should be the beginning of the long-awaited cure for their ills. Instead, tragically, death continues to draw downward the fates of these two clans.
Long considered one of the greatest love stories of all time, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is being given a clean, black and white production at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA. Like the finest black-and-white movies of the early days of Talkies, there is a technicolor sequence. It is the masquerade ball for which every member of the company is decked out in full color and the show takes on a magical, mythical quality. It is during this sequence, and the love scene that follows it, that Juliet finds her one true love in youthfully romantic Romeo. As costumed by Kiki Smith it is easy to understand the attraction and the wonderment of new emotions.
This classic of the English-speaking theater has inspired so many other plays, books and movies that the story has become somewhat trite, less moving than it must have been in its first century. To consider seeing another production of it also feels less moving, less motivating. Even so, when a clever director and a lovely cast bring to life a version of the story that is perhaps as true to Shakespeare’s original intent as is humanly possibly, it is worth the effort to see what the play is all about.
Daniela Varon has done her job brilliantly. With a contemporary look that becomes almost a timeless vision of these people and with a cast of actors who manage to be the ages their roles demand the play loses itself into a timeless abyss and the story’s universal qualities emerge into the dramatic lighting designed by Les Dickert. This isn’t ancient Verona any longer; it isn’t Lenox in the 21st century; it’s not the west side of New York in the racially smattered 1950s. We are in that limbo of time where all stories are replayed constantly and our vision of reality is just that: a vision of reality. Thus the words of the play come to us as a new language we have been born to comprehend and the play works on every conceivable level.
Juliet is a tomboy in the hands of Susannah Millonzi. She duels, she runs, she dances and she loves with every fibre of her being. She is the embodiment of passion. She is as much the aggressor as the Romeo of David Gelles. In love with the fair Rosaline, he transfers his youthful desires to another at first glance. Lust is transformed instantly to love in Gelles’ playing and we can see the difference. Their "balcony" scene involving a Shaker chair moves the reality of the play into that limbotic space where legend and tale become relevant to our own lives and to the timeless space of our neighborhood.
Kevin O’Donnell’s Mercutio is an adorable, drunken fool whose antics and erratic behavior is both endearing and frightening. Wolfe Coleman’s Paris is almost too attractive not to be loved and accepted by Juliet who spurns him into the grave. Sam Parrott brings a sweet sense of humanity to Benvolio and Equiano Mosieri is a seriously dangerous Tybalt.
As the elders of the community, Malcolm Ingram shines as Lord Capulet, a loving man who will sacrifice his only child to a loveless marriage. His scenes are gracious and charming and yet when his daughter denies him this "connection" wish, he shows a violent side that is totally unanticipated. As his wife, Kelley Curran brings to Lady Capulet a very honest quality, one in which it is plain that she resents her own child’s influence on her husband. The playing is subtle and yet clear. Johnny Lee Davenport is a powerhouse as Romeo’s father and his final scene shows how a strong man can be deeply affected by losses.
As Nurse to Juliet, Starla Benford broadens the eternal quality of the play, her normally humorous role becoming one of impact, one of foolish romanticism. Walton Wilson finds more drama in the part of Friar Laurence than is normal. He plays the dramatic mentor with terrific force and is, thereby, less of a frail, failure of a guiding hand than usual.
Here is a case where an old story - a familiar one, so familiar that we can say the lines whether or not we have seen the play before, sing the songs created for the moments, tell the story before the play begins - becomes new. A production of Romeo and Juliet that is both inspired and inspiring, enthralled and enthralling, detailed and derailing, it almost does what so many people have dreamed of for years: it almost has a happy ending. Luckily no one took that extra "dibble–dance" step of bringing the protagonists to a happier place, even with the final, Jewish Wedding dance visual impression. This is the production you will want to tell your grandchildren about.
David Gelles as Romeo; photo: Kevin Sprague
Romeo and Juliet plays in repertory on the Founders Theatre Stage at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street, in Lenox, MA through September 3. For information, schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353.