War-torn romance brought to stage

TheaterReview

October 22, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A largely nonverbal interpretation of a Shakespearean tragedy, co-produced by a Bulgarian puppet theater and a New York movement theater company? It's quintessential avant-garde Theatre Project fare.

Yet Romeo & Juliet, co-directed by Joanna Sherman, of New York's Bond Street Theatre, and Tsvete Yaneva, of Bulgaria's Theatre Tsvete, is an accessible and, in many instances visually beautiful, work. What it lacks, surprisingly, is substantive political commentary.

The reason this comes as a surprise is that the two companies clearly have a political agenda. They met while working in refugee camps in Macedonia, where they decided to collaborate on a piece intended for Balkan audiences.

Granted, their Romeo & Juliet definitely comes out on the side of love, not war. But it does so in a manner so broad and schematic, it overlooks a number of Shakespeare's key plot points, including Friar Lawrence's stratagem to have Juliet feign suicide and the eventual reconciliation of Romeo and Juliet's feuding families.

In this version, the play is reduced simply to a tale of two young people whose forbidden love leads to tragedy. Their love, however, is the source of the show's most enchanting imagery. Romeo and Juliet's wedding night is portrayed by silhouetting the couple behind an expanse of white fabric. And, loveliest of all, when they must part, doves fly above the fabric - doves that turn out to be the actors' black-lighted, white-gloved hands.

In addition, an intriguing example of artistic license is taken with the chronology. The wedding is staged simultaneously with the street fight in which Romeo's interference leads to the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. Romeo steps off the altar to intercede in the duel, then lays down his sword to return to Juliet, only to rashly reverse himself and slay Tybalt.

As Bond Street and Tsvete reinterpret the tale, it isn't the faults of the young couple's elders - their warring families and Friar Lawrence's bungled scheme - that lead to Romeo and Juliet's deaths. Instead, the fatal ending is primarily precipitated by Romeo's decision to forsake love for warfare.

Indeed, far from seeming tragically wrong-headed, many of the adults are literally portrayed as clowns - from Mr. and Mrs. Capulet (as they are introduced) yelling, "Party!" before the shindig at which Romeo and Juliet meet, to the Capulets' plate-juggling chefs and Juliet's Nurse, played by Violina Vassileva with an excessively padded bust and backside.

The American and Bulgarian actors blend seamlessly into an agile 11-member ensemble, many of whom take multiple parts and all of whose faces are partially masked for most of the evening. In the title roles, Robert Lok, who portrays Romeo exclusively, and Luanne Dietrich, the first of three actresses who portray Juliet, deliver especially fresh and youthful performances.

Despite Theatre Tsvete's billing as a puppet theater, there aren't a lot of puppets. But what the performers manage to do with minimal props borders on magic. Just watch the multiple uses to which Juliet's long, white veil is put.

Nor is the show entirely non-verbal. To the contrary, it starts with a highly verbal - and highly effective - exchange, which is so unexpected, I'm not going to give it away. And even the wordless sections are far from silent thanks to the onstage woodwind and percussion accompaniment.

What you see in this Romeo & Juliet is often imaginative and moving, though ultimately thin. If you'd like to learn more about the work these two theater troupes have done in war-torn areas, you can attend a free lecture at 7 tonight in the Kelley Lecture Hall at Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road (for more information, call 410-337-6510). The lecture will, most likely, fill in some of the political context that's missing from the otherwise evocative images created on stage.

Romeo & Juliet

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $16

Call: 410-752-8558

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