Performers save uneven `Romeo'

TheaterReview

October 12, 2005|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

If it weren't for unfortunate timing, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet might have been a comedy. No kidding.

If Romeo had received the letter telling him Juliet wasn't really dead ... or if she'd awakened a moment sooner - before he drank poison. These are big "ifs," but they make the difference between happily ever after and a body count.

So, there's justification for director Pat Diamond's decision to emphasize the comic elements in the first half of his Baltimore Shakespeare Festival production. But enjoyable as these humorous interludes may be, the contrast in tones doesn't adequately heighten the eventual tragedy.

That's primarily because the tragic ending feels rushed - one of a few missteps in a production that, though uneven, benefits greatly from two first-rate performances in the title roles.

James Flanagan makes an appealingly boyish Romeo. At first a lachrymose adolescent luxuriating in his unrequited love for a girl named Rosaline, he quickly trades his self-indulgent misery for antic bliss - Flanagan literally jumps for joy - after falling in love at first sight with Juliet.

Katherine E. Hill's Juliet, though equally smitten, is more level-headed. And even when she tempers Romeo's impetuousness, her determination remains undaunted. Growing old together (as they would have if the play had indeed been a comedy), Flanagan's exuberant Romeo and Hill's smart Juliet would have probably made a dynamite couple. But of course, that's not the way things work out.

It's always seemed to me that the ineptitude of two well-meaning adults is one reason events go so terribly wrong. The bungling grown-ups are Friar Laurence, who secretly marries the pair, and Juliet's Nurse, who arranges for the newlyweds to spend their wedding night together. The Friar believes the marriage may unite the lovers' feuding families. The Nurse simply wants her beloved Juliet to be happy. Diamond uses these motives as an excuse to depict the Friar and Nurse as "servants [who] teach their masters something important about the nature of love" and as "valuable guides," according to a program note.

The director sharpens the focus on the Friar and Nurse by giving them the explanatory lines usually spoken by the Chorus. Then he goes too far. He whitewashes one of the Nurse's chief flaws - her pragmatic fickleness - by trimming the harshness out of the speech in which she advises Juliet to forget banished Romeo and marry her parents' choice, Paris. More crucially, Diamond omits the Friar's fatal decision to leave Juliet alone in the tomb with Romeo's corpse.

Part of the point of Romeo and Juliet is that the adults learn a lesson in tolerance from the doomed young lovers. By assigning the lovers a pair of adult "guides," Diamond weakens this theme.

This directorial misstep, however, doesn't diminish the fine performances of Karl Kippola as the good-hearted Friar, or especially Rosemary Knower as the chatterbox Nurse, a cheery figure whose heart shatters over Juliet's death. Among the other notable performances are those of Robb Hunter as Tybalt, Shannon Parks as Lady Capulet and Josh Thelin as Benvolio.

Romeo and Juliet is the second offering in the Shakespeare Festival's "Reality Shakespeare" season, intended to re-create certain Renaissance theatrical practices, such as period dress (the current lavish costumes are by Norah Worthington).

The theater's strongest commitment to the period, however, is its new two-level, Elizabethan-style stage, beautifully designed by Lewis Shaw and crafted by Thomas Brown. It may take a while to work out the kinks (for example, on opening night the audience was left staring at a curtain when a shadow effect failed in the scene in which Juliet is discovered, presumably dead, in her bed). But from its inlaid floor to the stars, moon and sun painted on the balcony ceiling, this stage should prove a stunning display case for Shakespeare's plays.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

If you go

"Romeo and Juliet" continues through Oct. 30 at St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave. $25. Call 410-366-8596.

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