D.C. production plays Shakespeare by the book

Review: `Romeo and Juliet' fails to capture the depth and passion that makes the ending of this tale so tragic.

April 02, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It's telling that the fight scenes are among the strongest moments in director Rachel Kavanaugh's production of Romeo and Juliet at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre.

The opening street brawl is such a wild melee that even the title characters' middle-aged fathers draw their swords and enter into the fray. Indeed, the stage can barely contain the fractious brawl, which appears to involve the entire town of Verona.

Hatred courses through the veins of this Shakespearean production, as it should: Romeo and Juliet is partly a play about hate. But it is mostly a play about love - and above all, about passion.

Yet despite the heated fight scenes (choreographed by David Leong) and a splendid performance by Jennifer Ikeda as a young, determined, intelligent and fiercely devoted Juliet, Kavanaugh's straightforward, largely unadorned production is unusually lacking in passion.

Part of the problem may be that Kavanaugh, a British director making her U.S. debut, seems more concerned with the impact of Romeo and Juliet's relationship on warring Verona than on the lovers themselves.

Consider Kavanaugh's handling of the play's prologue, which summarizes the plot, including its conclusion. Instead of having the prologue spoken by the character of the "Chorus," Kavanaugh fills the stage with actors and divvies up the speech among various characters, each speaking a line or two. Everyone, Kavanaugh suggests, has a stake in Romeo and Juliet's fate.

The audience, of course, must also have a stake in the lovers' fate, but that stake is lessened by the fact that Paul Whitthorne's Romeo evinces little romantic ardor.

An actor whose boyish looks are somewhat reminiscent of Neil Patrick Harris, Whitthorne readily conveys his character's youth and immaturity. Not only does this Romeo "weep" and "blubber" after he is banished from Verona, he also buries his head in the lap of Juliet's Nurse as if he were a toddler.

By the time he's in exile, he's grown up a bit, as we realize when he perches on the edge of the stage and calmly relates a disturbing dream to the audience. But the love this Romeo feels for Juliet is never convincing (even as adolescent love at first sight), and that deficiency makes it all but impossible to care whether these two make a go of it or not.

Several other key performances also don't gel. As Juliet's father, the usually adept Edward Gero comes across as oddly humorous, almost a swaggering stereotype - before, that is, he does an about-face and rages at his disobedient daughter. And Claudia Robinson's busy portrayal of the Nurse fails to mine much of the rich humor from this comic character.

Harry Carnahan's robust depiction of Mercutio, however, is one of the production's best portrayals. Various scholars have said that Shakespeare had to kill off Mercutio early or he would have stolen the play, and Carnahan, who gives full vent to this articulate, spirited character, is definitely missed after his sudden demise. Carnahan even enters into that tragic event with an unbridled sense of fun - furiously darting his tongue in and out at his opponent, Andrew Long's hot-headed Tybalt.

Set designer Peter McKintosh has created a dark, sparse setting of which the primary feature is a double row of wood balconies stretching from one side of the stage to the other. It's a design that emphasizes the play's crucial balcony scene, although the second balcony serves little purpose. Fabio Toblini's costumes mix period details - a frilly man's collar, a laced woman's bodice - with modern dress (Mercutio wears blue jeans) in a way that makes the audience comfortable with the characters without consigning them to a specific period.

In the end, however, there simply hasn't been enough romantic passion expended (at least on Romeo's part) to give the play's outcome its full tragic weight. Even the broader impact of the lovers' deaths feels insufficient; when their fathers vow to erect gold statues in their children's memories, it almost seems as if, instead of burying the hatchet, these two are merely competing again.

Kavanaugh has said her chief concern is Shakespeare's words and, to borrow Juliet's praise of Romeo's first kiss, you could say the director "has gone by the book."

But when Juliet says, "You kiss by th' book," she is complimenting Romeo's expertise. And expertise in directing a classic calls for interpretive depth, not just mastery of the text.

Romeo and Juliet

Where: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, most Tuesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through May 19

Admission: $15.50-$64

Call: 202-547-1122

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