"Romeo and Juliet" is a play filled with joyously grand expectations that suddenly turn sour -- primarily the title characters' expectation of a happy marriage, which quickly turns into a double funeral.
The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, now presenting this romantic tragedy at Loyola College, seems to have simpler expectations. To quote from the program: "It is the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's mission to stay out of the way of Shakespeare's language . . . [and] to resist the impulse to innovate."
But this production, directed by Steve Tague, has mixed results in meeting those expectations. It achieves part of its goal by dint of sheer thoroughness. This is one of the more complete renditions of the popular Shakespearean tragedy you're likely to see.
And, in casting youthful-looking actors as Romeo and Juliet, Tague gets another crucial element right -- the tender age, and consequent naive optimism, of the star-crossed lovers. Christopher Mark Johnson is a bold, handsome Romeo. At the start of the play, he's in love with the idea of being in love, but when he meets Juliet he falls headlong into the real thing.
The play is more Juliet's than Romeo's, however. It is she who brings up the subject of marriage and then cunningly defies her parents when they insist she marry another. Dina Comolli's depiction of Juliet constantly reminds us of the contradictions within this young woman, who is not yet 14.
With a high voice and eyes as big as the moon under which she and Romeo meet, Comolli is a rather eccentric, bird-like Juliet. Her manner and appearance require her to work twice as hard to convince us of her character's seriousness and determination. But she eventually makes the depth of her feelings palpable, particularly when informed of Romeo's banishment.
In another respect, the festival's mission gets in its way. The two-year-old company is committed to training student interns, who share the stage with experienced professional actors. It's a noble effort, but in this case it results in an uneven production. More than once, the less accomplished work by the ensemble detracts from such polished performances as those of Kathleen Tague as Juliet's loquacious nurse, Karla Nielson as Juliet's concerned mother, or Jeffrey A. Ricketts as Romeo's mocking crony, Mercutio.
Ricketts' bawdy, animated delivery of Mercutio's famous Queen Mab speech is excelled only by his duel with John Silvers' Tybalt, in which he refuses to take even bloody swordplay seriously -- until Tybalt jolts him into earnestness with a swift kick. In fact, all of the fight scenes, directed by Stanton Davis, soar. The liveliness of the production is also enhanced by director Tague's frequent use of the theater's aisles.
Yet overall, Tague's staging does not move swiftly -- a problem in a play in which rapidly accelerating events contribute significantly to the final tragedy.
Nor does there seem to be a major advantage -- or consistency -- to resisting "the impulse to innovate." Tague, who also plays the role of the portentous Chorus, does so in modern dress, and several musical selections are modern.
Finally, lovely as designer Deborah Rooney's period costumes may be, where does this effort at Shakespearean verisimilitude end? After all, to truly produce plays as Shakespeare did, the festival would have to cast boys in the women's roles. If the primary objective of this young festival is to have Shakespeare's language speak to modern audiences, it would be wiser to remain open to a wide range of interpretations than to limit options.
'ROMEO AND JULIET'
Where: McManus Theater, Loyola College
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 20. After its run at Loyola, the production moves to the Peggy & Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills for five performances: 8 p.m. Aug. 26-29 and 3 p.m. Aug. 27.
Call: (410) 617-5024