Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 19,

2001 edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Romeo and Juliet’

The lobby at the McCarter Theater was well lit on

opening

night, but it was illumination from the display of commemorative

burning

candles that the arriving audience was immediately drawn. There was

no need to comment, only to look, feel, and know.

A recent trip to Europe and reading about the breakdown of talks in

the Middle East prompted McCarter Theater’s artistic director Emily

Mann to choose "Romeo and Juliet" as the season opener and

also as the first of Shakespeare’s plays she has directed. In a

published

interview with Daniel LaPenta of Drew University, Mann said that it

was a photo of a mother holding her dead child in her arms — a

little boy who must have been about nine years old — that was

a defining moment. He had been throwing stones and had been shot.

The caption under the photo read, "I wish I had 10 more sons to

give to the struggle." Mann thought "My God, there is no

hope."

In the wake of the terrorist attack of September 11 and the violence

that has brought devastation to our land and death to so many who

sought only to love and be loved in our midst, Shakespeare’s tragedy

could not be more timely. Mann’s staging has arrived at a time when

nothing less than one of sheer excellence could capture our hearts

and minds. This one does. Mann’s vision and execution of "Romeo

and Juliet" may be the most lucid, exciting, and artful of the

dozen or more that I have seen.

In the guise of Jeffrey Carlson and Sarah Drew, "Romeo and

Juliet,"

those two lovesick kids from Verona, are mooning innocently at each

other once again, eternally unaware that their love is destined to

be the victim of their families bitter feuding, a madness than cannot

contain itself.

But what a disarming pair they are — as blind to the hatred

between

their families as they are wide-eyed by the one and only emotion that

really matters. And what a rewarding evening they are presiding over.

Not the least of the rewards is the stunning physical production.

Impressively framed by set designer Neil Patel’s high, hard alabaster

walls, enhanced by lighting designer Donald Holder’s enveloping

atmospherics,

and dressed with Jess Goldstein’s breathtaking autumn-tinged period

costumes, 16th-century Verona has rarely been so stunningly evoked.

Yes, we are relieved that Mann has kept the oft-transported and

transplanted

star-crossed lovers in the time and place of Shakespeare’s vision,

Renaissance, Italy.

From the play’s opening moment when a young boy picks

up a stone and hurls it in anger into a band of older youths, Mann’s

staging is not only afire with the volatile passions of youth but

also clangorous in depicting the waves of civil unrest. The brawl

that opens the play and the later ones instigated by the feuding

Montague

and Capulet families are as vivid as they are violent. I was pleased

with Mann’s judicious yet meticulous pruning of the script and her

fluid use of overlapping scenes.

But what about those young lovers? In portraying Romeo, your typical

self-impressed 1596 teenager who goes ga-ga at every pretty face in

Verona, the actor needs to make a convincing case for youthful

suffering

and angst. As portrayed by Carlson, Romeo does this handsomely and

expediently as we watch him quickly forgetting his latest crush on

the fair Rosaline as soon as he gazes on the likes of Juliet. There

also is much to admire in the way this attractive and ardent young

actor grappled with the role’s histrionics.

Although Drew’s Juliet has a tendency toward a contemporary lilt in

her speech, she also caresses the verse, not as some abstract or

reverential

scripture reading, but with the honestly felt emotions and, indeed,

giddiness, of a maturing maiden in the first bloom of love. I

especially

appreciated Drew’s decision not to appear overly demure. Punctuated

by a reckless freshness, the famed balcony scene is an unexpected

joy. Carlson’s robust leaping into the air to touch the tips of

Juliet’s

fingers made one swoon in adoration of their ecstasy, passion, and,

yes, hot kisses.

That both Carlson and Drew flaunt the grace and style of purposeful

young Shakespearean actors, as well as the exuberance and wit of their

respective characters, seems even more gratifying in light of their

limited experience. Carlson graduated this spring from Juilliard’s

Drama Division and Drew is currently a fourth year student at the

University of Virginia.

If our attention is generally riveted on the driven Romeo and Juliet,

we can also turn our attention occasionally to the traditionally

overwrought

Mercutio (Remy Auberjonois) and Romeo’s empathetic cousin and sidekick

Benvolio (Christopher Rivera).

David Cromwell assumes the role of the empathetic herbalist Friar

Laurence with the humorously becalmed air of someone in love with

plotting. I like the blatant nastiness of Joe Wilson’s Tybalt. His

vigorous, ill-fated hand-to-hand combat with Romeo is the most

realistic

I’ve seen. As Juliet’s coarse old nanny (a very difficult role) Myra

Lucretia Taylor happily doesn’t fall prey, like many a fine actress

has before her, to the recourse of mugging. Instead, she embellishes

the nurse with a lusty air of tough love with which the audience is

able to identify.

Johnny Giacalone, as County Paris, was perhaps far too likable a

spurned

suitor to have us believe that the romantically inclined Juliet would

so easily toss this comely swain aside. Giving two small roles —

Friar John and servant Peter — precious comical insinuation is

playwright, actor, and director David Greenspan.

Mann, guiding a superb cast, has meaningfully focused on the humanity

and conflict between the feuding Montagues and Capulets and the

poignant

relationship of the ill-fated lovers. As we are reminded, Romeo and

Juliet’s plight and their fate is encountered today, in the Middle

East and the rest of the world, where similar scenarios are being

played out every day.

— Simon Saltzman

Romeo and Juliet , McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. $39 and $43. To Sunday, September 30.


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