'Romeo,' cast with a twist Review: Actor's prowess in five HTC roles makes Center Stage's production of Shakespeare's play stand out in the crowd.

February 07, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Romeo and Juliet" is one of Shakespeare's most produced plays, but until now it has never been produced at Center Stage. And while director Irene Lewis' production retains many traditional elements, it also takes some fascinatingly inventive -- and largely successful -- chances.

This is especially impressive considering how difficult it is to come up with something that hasn't been done to this chestnut tragedy, which, after all, has been transformed into everything from a landmark Leonard Bernstein musical to the recent punk MTV-style movie. But merely coming up with something new isn't enough. Making that something meaningful is the real challenge.

And that is what Lewis has done by casting a single actor, Robert Dorfman, in five separate roles that come to seem related, though they are outwardly as dissimilar as the Chorus and Juliet's Nurse.

The link stems from the Chorus, who recites the prologue informing the audience of the tragedy to follow. Because of this, in whatever role he subsequently plays, even if he is merely weaving through a party or hanging out on the sidelines of a duel, Dorfman becomes a kind of guide, steering the audience through the play just as surely as he steers the characters toward their certain fate.

Granted, his cross-gender portrayal of the Nurse -- achieved simply by topping his multi-purpose white linen suit with a thin black shawl -- initially feels odd (as do his occasional exaggerated inflections). But Dorfman helps get us over the hump of disbelief by looking a bit startled himself at first, and by the time the Nurse informs Juliet of her cousin Tybalt's murder and Romeo's banishment, the Nurse's anguish is so genuine -- and gender-less -- that it makes no difference that the role is being played by a man.

Most significantly, Dorfman's frequent presence is like an unspoken reminder, as if he were coaxing the audience: "Pay attention. There is a point to this." And, at the risk of over-simplifying, when he stares straight out at us over the lovers' corpses in the end, the point is made as clearly as if he repeated the prologue or announced, "I told you so. Now learn."

The other actors are all traditionally cast, and there are a number of strong performances, beginning with the youthful portrayals of the title characters by Michael Hall, whose fickle, in-love-with-love Romeo grows up fast, and Kali Rocha, whose tough, ardent, smart Juliet can also be adorably girlish.

Other standouts include Laurence O'Dwyer's wise, but ultimately weak, Friar Laurence, who engineers Romeo and Juliet's secret marriage with all the best intentions of restoring harmony to their feuding families; Mark Zeisler's hotheaded Tybalt; and, in the often cipher-like role of Paris, the bridegroom Juliet's parents select for her, Scott Brasfield displays an attitude so strikingly similar to Juliet's arrogant, chauvinistic father (Mark Elliot Wilson), he adds further fuel to her rejection of him.

One of the other unconventional aspects of Center Stage's production is designer Michael Yeargan's sun-drenched set, whose primary features are two abstract houses. These not only form a stunning backdrop for designer Candice Donnelly's Renaissance-flavored costumes, but they slide together like interlocking puzzle pieces in the visually arresting scene when Romeo and Juliet wed. When their families finally reconcile in the end, however, they do so not in front of the joined houses, but over Romeo and Juliet's bier, which, eerily, is the same raised platform that served as their marriage bed.

Not all of the production's risks work this neatly. I'm not sure why the minor ensemble/stagehand characters wear the type of electronic headsets favored by stage managers. This may be an attempt to reinforce the innate theatricality of the play, but the image is jarring.

Far more effective are the melancholy saxophone riffs played by musician Leigh Pilzer. Like Dorfman, Pilzer also drifts through the action, and her music serves as a recurring thread subtly reminding us that Shakespeare's play about the consequences of hatred may be an old sad song, but it remains eminently -- and crucially -- worth singing.

'Romeo and Juliet'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Feb. 19; through March 16

Tickets: $10-$38

Call: (410) 481-6500

Pub Date: 2/07/97

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