The best thing about Cockpit in Court's outdoor production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is that the young lovers genuinely seem young.
This lends credibility to such hot-blooded plot-turning elements as love at first sight and overwrought passion. The latter, however, is also symptomatic of one of the production's chief shortcomings -- a tendency to be excessively overwrought. This shows up even in the portrayals of some of the adult characters, despite the overall lack of urgency characterizing this Cockpit effort.
Perhaps most significantly, however, there is a layer of confusion underlying this rendition, stemming from director Suzanne Beal's use of interracial casting. In recent years, color-blind casting has become a widespread practice, but that doesn't seem to be what's going on here.
Instead of choosing actors regardless of race, Beal has assembled a cast in which the members of the nuclear Capulet clan are black and the nuclear Montagues are white. Since these families represent the Shakespearean version of "Family Feud," the casting initially sets up the expectation of a racially based interpretation, similar to that used by the British Young Vic a decade ago, or in the better known example of the musical "West Side Story."
That expectation topples, however, due to several inconsistencies, most notably the casting of a white actor as Paris, Capulet's preferred bridegroom for his daughter Juliet. Because of this blurring, a concept that might have further clarified Shakespeare's theme turns out to be more distracting than enlightening.
If you can get past this, Cockpit's "Romeo and Juliet" boasts a number of sensitive performances and directorial touches. As the Prince of Verona, Rohn Luckett starts out exasperated by the long-standing Capulet-Montague feud, and as blood is shed, his exasperation changes to rage and finally sadness. Melanee Murray's Juliet not only looks the right age, she brims with naturalistic adolescent emotions. In contrast, Tony Gallahan's Romeo frequently exhibits an affected quality, and when he speaks his quiet asides under Juliet's balcony, his delivery is loud enough to wake the neighborhood.
Maria Broom imbues Juliet's mother with nobility and maternal impulses. And Carol Mason is a marvelously foolish chatterbox as the Nurse, although her performance is more than a little reminiscent of Pat Heywood's in the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli movie.
Some of the best -- and most shocking -- direction comes when Juliet's father, played by Kenneth Hoke-Witherspoon, physically attacks his daughter after she refuses to marry Paris; instantly we understand the stubborn fury that has kept the Capulets and Montagues feuding so long. Further insights stem from combat choreographer Lewis Shaw's staging of the street fight that claims the lives of Mercutio and Tybalt. The playful opening of this brawl reminds us of the youth of these antagonists and demonstrates how the impressionable children of hateful fathers learn to perpetuate that hate.
Shakespeare's tragedy illustrates the close connection between sex and death, love and hate. But on a more basic level it also illustrates the dangers of a failure to communicate. And though there are many bright spots in Cockpit's production, the distracting casting lessens its powers of communication.
'Romeo and Juliet'
When: Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m.
Where: Cockpit in Court, Essex Community College.