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BWW Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at Hartford Stage Company

Director Darko Tresnjak directed 24 other Shakespeare productions before mounting his first ROMEO AND JULIET, currently on the boards at Hartford Stage where he is Artistic Director. His hesitation arose from his belief that, despite the play's popularity, it is a problematic piece by a young playwright.

It's worth the wait. The production at Hartford Stage is set in post-World War 2 Italy. The visuals (especially the costumes) are influenced by Italian neo-realist cinema. Pervasive misogyny infuses the culture: women in this town are clearly subject to physical harassment in the streets should they venture out alone, even in daytime--whether young or no. Juliet is a commodity, to be given away as a prize by her father to his friend Paris, despite her tender age of 13. It's a grim norm.

Though the famous balcony scene is as well performed as I have ever seen it--sweet, charming and lively without being sugary or conventional--the emphasis here is on the heat of the unexplained feuding between families, and the way it defines everyday life in Verona. Without contradicting the text, Tresnjak suggests that the young lovers' deaths may not be enough to overcome habitual violence and certainly won't budge patriarchal hegemony.

The whole tragedy unfurls against a constant reminder of death--literally. The entire back wall of the set is a columbarium: the façade of a mausoleum, with cement vaults stacked up as high and wide as we can see, each with a memorial candle and a vase for flowers. Romeo even takes some of those death flowers to present to Juliet as a wedding bouquet. Clever lighting permits multiple shadows to be cast against this surface at various moments; at other times, the set is darkened and the votive lights glow in warm rhythm that interrupts the dark blues of night.

Tresnjak designed this set as well as directing the show. A surprise device allows the balcony to emerge as a cement platform pushing forward out of the wall of death, unencumbered by any railings. It's designed to be just the right height for Romeo to reach it by leaping up so he can hang off of it. Downstage of the wall is a sunken gravel rectangle at center, distracting at times for the crunch of footsteps, but concealing another surprise.

Chris Ghaffari plays Romeo, on loan from the Yale School of Drama where he is in his final semester. He brings an engaging and loose-limbed athleticism to the part. Before his first exit, he twice makes an abrupt about-face to return to conversation; his contradictory movement suggests his changeability, and prepares how instantaneously he transfers his affection from the chaste Rosaline to the responsive Juliet. He handles the verse with ease, and makes a convincing romantic lead.

Romeo's physicality is matched by his friends, who play with a soccer ball, ride a bike around the sunken gravel rectangle, and engage in lusty competitions of wit with each other, keeping score as they go. Wyatt Fenner moves like a trained dancer in the crucial role of Mercutio, and has wit and flair to burn. The young men's scenes surge with bromance, unequally requited, and the fight sequences (choreographed by Steve Rankin) are brief and violent rather than stagey.

Alas, Juliet (Kaliswa Brewster) has no such cohort of buddies; her isolation only deepens over the course of the show. We see her dance with friends at the ball but otherwise, her sole confidant is the nurse, ably and sympathetically portrayed by veteran Kandis Chappell. She is well matched by Charles Janasz as the Friar, whose passionate speech rousing Romeo from despair is masterfully delivered-and peppered with more reminders of how misogynistic the world view in Verona is.

There's an unusual arc to Juliet's depiction in this production. We first see her in a bright orange and hot pink dress; it's covered with exaggerated blossoms, and moves freely. That's what she wears for the dance sequence at the ball, which is quite seductive and sexual. She flirts with Paris and then falls in love with Romeo in that dress. For the balcony sequences, she's in a next-to-transparent blush pink negligee, which works. Her next outfit is a yellow sundress, washed still with pink flowers, but somewhat more demure. With the addition of a white shrug and a silly white fascinator hat, that becomes her wedding garb. Once she defies her father's directive that she marry Paris, she appears in a very structured white pique suit complete with peplum and black buttons and a little black purse. The visual transformation from passionate costuming to prim runs counter to her sexual awakening, and contributed to my sense that this Juliet didn't really care much for her Romeo; that she exhibits no skin hunger for him in their morning leave-taking anchored that perception. For me, this trajectory is the only off note in a fine production.

This ROMEO AND JULIET runs just under 3 hours. The pace is swift where it can be but languorous in the love sequences. In one particularly charming moment, Romeo and Juliet stretch out as if sleeping next to each other, with a huge gap of air between them. There is no full nudity in this show, but the violence is swift and graphic. It stands as a fine introduction to the Bard for younger viewers, and Hartford Stage has mounted a full slate of morning shows for area schools, to their credit. The production runs through March 20.

photo by T. Charles Erickson

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