Stephanie C. Lyons-Keeley and Wayne J. Keeley
What do you do to make an iconic Shakespeare play like Romeo & Juliet seem fresh and original? Especially one that we all hated to read in eighth grade, and then many of us like myself came to enjoy and appreciate in later years? One that has been parodied and satirized to hell in every medium from cartoons to video games? One that has been updated and modernized in plays and movies via what has come to be another classic, West Side Story? And finally, one that has a classic cinematic treatment in Franco Zeffirelli’s screen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet?
The task of breathing new life into Romeo & Juliet seems comparable to Man of La Mancha’s “Impossible Dream.” Nevertheless, director Darko Tresnjak has succeeded in Hartford Stage’s new production of Romeo & Juliet. In order to determine why it succeeds, it is necessary to analyze the various components of the production.
First, the scenic design (by Tresnjak as well) hits you immediately upon entering the theatre: a wall of crypts from floor to light grid. Each one is engraved with an Italian name, lit with a candle and decorated with a glass vase and flowers. I touched the set wall after the show and it felt like a real engraved tombstone. After I was reprimanded by security for touching it (I’m such a child, just ask my wife), I was told that each name on the crypts was picked out of a Verona directory and engraved on the set panels. My first thought was where the heck is the balcony? The only other real set piece was a rectangular pit with gravel in it that crunched under the actors’ feet. Unlike the lavish sets in Zefirelli’s film or the set dressing pieces found in a typical Shakespearean work, this set cast a somber pall of death over the stage. And what about that gravel pit? Perhaps it was to be a metaphor for the saying that true love travels on a gravel road?
Another component of any successful production is good casting. In Zefirelli’s film version, Olivia Hussey, then 15, WAS Juliet. Tresnjak selected his cast wisely with the aid of Binder casting. Relative newcomer and handsome Yale grad Chris Ghaffari made the perfect love struck Romeo, mixing just the right blend of vulnerability, machismo and comic timing. Experienced actress Kaliswa Brewster set the perfect tone as the doe-eyed innocent yet fiercely independent Juliet. They had great chemistry together as the doomed couple. (Don’t worry, there was a great balcony scene as well as a morning after scene.)
Kudos to the supporting cast as well. Veteran stage actor Charles Janasz was spot on as the well-intentioned but misguided Friar Laurence (the great actor Milo O’Shea played the role in Zeffirelli’s film). Celeste Ciulla, an oft-used Shakespearean actress in Tresnjak’s plays (this was their seventh collaboration) gave new life and breadth to the often one-note portrayal of Lady Capulet seen in other productions. Timothy D. Stickney was persuasive as Capulet, doting father yet strict and demanding disciplinarian. (As a father of a fourteen year-old girl, I could certainly relate to Stickney’s character mood swings.) Kandis Chappell was compelling as Juliet’s nurse, torn between her love for her charge and her loyalty to the house of Capulet. Wyatt Fenner as Mercutio and Jonathan Louis Dent as Tybalt were the perfect dueling hotheads that set the fate train in motion (nice fight sequences courtesy of fight choreographer Steve Rankin). Bill Christ as Prince Escalus and Chorus, Robert Hannon Davis as Montague, Cousin Capulet and Apothecary, Alex Hanna as Benvolio and Friar John, Stephen Mir as Balthasar, Julien Seredowych as Paris, and Callie Beaulieu as Lady Montague and Servant rounded out the talented cast. A final shout out must go to Raphael Massie who doubled as the illiterate Gregory and Peter and stole his scenes in both character portrayals.
I remember seeing Richard Dreyfuss and René Auberjonois in BAM Theater Co.’s Julius Caesar in 1978 (definitely dated myself with that one) – a production with period costumes and very little extrapolation and/or interpretation of the original dialogue and thinking this is how Shakespeare should be performed! How far I’ve come. I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that the costumes in Hartford’s production consisted for the most part of muted contemporary dress (thanks to costume designer Ilona Somogyi). The only time we saw any color was when Juliet was first introduced. Otherwise, the muted colors and shades of black, white and gray dress, combined with the minimalist set and the light and dark lighting all enhanced the overall somber atmosphere. Indeed, the use of flashlights at certain points and well directed spots (thank you lighting designer Matthew Richards) creating grotesque shadows on the wall was quite effective in creating an eerie feel, particularly in the final scene.
And the touches of originality and creativity were brilliant (and I am quite certain that even Shakespeare would approve of them). Mercutio’s bicycle was a great touch. The dance at the Capulet’s coming out party for Juliet was an engaging scene, as was the coy playfulness of the balcony scene. And the hint of necrophilia by Paris at Juliet’s presumed deathbed was priceless (you’ll know what I mean when you see it).
Finally, just as the classic cinematic treatment of Romeo and Juliet had the great Zeffirelli at the helm, in order to succeed this play version needed a great director. Fortunately, it had one in veteran Shakespearean director and Artistic Director of the Hartford Stage, Darko Tresnjak. Mr. Tresnjak’s CV is longer than my arm and his award list is longer than my leg (I’m so jealous).
All of the above elements were nimbly crafted and exploited to the max. Put them all together and you have a great piece of exciting theatre – even if it is just another production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. This is a play for all ages and a great intro into the classics for the young culture vultures of tomorrow. Wherefore art thou Romeo? At the Hartford Stage, of course.
Why, oh why do I do it to myself? And won’t I ever learn? Albert Einstein has been credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” So I guess seeing Romeo & Juliet, in any version, and hoping for a Hollywood ending is futile at best – “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool,” said the illustrious Shakespeare.
But that aside (and prepared with tissues in my pocket), Wayne and I had the grand opportunity to see the epic production at Hartford Stage – what has become one of my very favorite venues. There isn’t a bad seat in the house and it feels like a bit of Broadway smack in the middle of Connecticut. As we filed in to the packed house and saw the illuminated, empty stage designed to represent the tombs of those who’d passed before, I was grinning ear-to-ear. There was a center pit of white stones, its use later to be revealed. The set’s simplicity was contrasted by a gravity and an intensity – and it was fabulous. I later went on to read in the program that the inspiration for the set design and other aspects of the production was Italian neorealism, or the Golden Age of Italian Cinema – its emphasis on the artistic representation of Post-War Italy. Darko Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage, both directed Romeo & Juliet as well as created the scenic design.
I only have vague recollections of prior productions of this archetypal tale of the idealistic, star-crossed lovers and I was looking forward to Tresnjak’s interpretation. As soon as the actors took the stage, it became clear that there was to be a twist on the traditional – it wasn’t just set design that encapsulated neorealism, but also costumes, lighting, and other elements of the aesthetic. And what’s more, there was a beautiful diversity to the stellar cast who collectively represented multiple races and ethnicities.
The Capulet/Montague story needs no retelling here, so I instead will focus on the pieces of the gestalt. The acting was top-notch and what I would expect at Hartford Stage. Shakespeare is a beast to many, but each player in this dynamic troupe was spot-on – no word missed or line dropped. Chris Ghaffari as Romeo was the handsome heartthrob; funny, endearing, and he took the physicality of the role to a new level. Kaliswa Brewster as Juliet was flawless in her portrayal of the demure, love-struck protagonist. And the extraordinary, impassioned love between them? It was authentic to the point of goosebumps.
Kandis Chappel (a veteran of the stage including Broadway and Off-Broadway) as Nurse was intermittently funny and warm as the doting caregiver to Juliet. Wyatt Fenner as the mercurial Mercutio delivered a staggering Queen Mab monologue, stealing scenes oftentimes, including when he rode his bicycle round and round in circles on stage. Jonathan Louis Dent as Tybalt had the perfect blend of macho aggression and family loyalty. Charles Janasz completely delivered as the well-meaning Friar Laurence.
With a cast of 23, it is too hard to mention each by name, but other notables include Alex Hanna as Benvolio, Romeo’s attentive and caring friend; Raphael Massie injected humor as Capulet servant Peter who also doubled as Gregory; and Julien Saredowych as the presumptuous Paris, suitor to Juliet. The young Juliet’s parents, Timothy D. Stickney as Capulet and Celeste Ciulla as Lady Capulet illustrated the fine line that exists between love and hate – even of one’s own progeny. Robert Hannon Davis as Montague and Callie Beaulieu as Lady Montague brought life to these somewhat muted characters.
For choreography of the incredible fight scenes, kudos to Steve Rankin assisted by Sean Chin. Matthew Richards, assisted by Jane Chan provided incredible lighting design, making wonderful use of flashlights to create large, looming and purposeful shadows. Other delightful elements included the vibrant dance sequence at the Capulet masquerade ball and the perfection of the moving set pieces, including the balcony and Romeo’s acrobatics in the classic scene.
The simple, garb – contemporary by Shakespearean standards yet seemingly undated, designed by Ilona Somogyi – injected a delightfully distinctive tone to Tresnjak’s production. It is clear that his vision ultimately was realized through his smooth incorporation of classic with modern.
I continue to be impressed with the quality of the work at Hartford Stage and look very forward also to seeing more of Tresnjak’s stellar direction. This is one incredible and elegant piece of stage work – one I would highly recommend!
Romeo & Juliet continues through March 20, 2016 with a running time of 2 hours, 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. For more information about this production and about Hartford Stage, please visit www.hartfordstage.org.