BWW Reviews: ROMEO AND JULIET in Westport
If you think you've seen Romeo and Juliet enough times, you'll feel as if you're seeing it with new eyes at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Mark Lamos, who has earned a reputation as one of the best directors of Shakespeare's works, treats the play as if it is a completely new show. That's a major feat, considering it is the world's best-known love story and it has been reinterpreted and modernized in theatre, ballet, and film. Everything you can do with it, it's been done, except what Lamos did: refresh it completely. Lamos's Romeo and Juliet is a high-octane show that is filled with emotion from the get-go. The cast totally gets the characters, the times, and the issues. Michael Yeargan's glorious set is complemented by Matthew Richards's expert lighting and David Budries's sound design. Add to that Fabian Fidel Aguillar's gorgeous costume and Michael Rossmy's fight scenes, and you have a production of Romeo and Juliet that would impress the Bard himself.
The play itself is vague about the origins of the Montague-Capulet feud, which happened many, many years before the story begins. When the show opens, there is already high tension in the streets of Verona when young people on each side encounter each other. Whatever the cause of the grudge, it is obviously still intense, and that's before Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg) and Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer) fall in love and interfere with the Capulets' (Triny Sandoval and Alison Cimmet) plans to have their daughter marry Count Paris (Cole Francum), a relative of Prince Escalus of Verona (J. Kenneth Campbell). To keep score, the Felicity Jones Latta plays Juliet's Nurse and Dave Register plays Tybalt, Lady Capulet's beloved nephew. On the other side are Montague (Chris Bolan), Montague's wife (Barbara Hentschel), Mercutio (Patrick Andrews), and Benvolio (Tyler Fauntleroy). In between the feuding families are Friar Laurence (Peter Francis James), Samson (Jim Ludlum), Balthasar (Peter Molesworth), Peter (Clay Singer), and in the ensemble, Emily Vrissis, Becca Schneider, Adam Coy. This perfect cast breathes new life into the characters. Rodenburg's Juliet is not all passive purity who happens to fall in love with someone her parents disapprove of, but a young woman who is strong, intelligent, and determined. Cusati-Moyer's Romeo is a romantic idealist with a bit of a rebel streak. (In the beginning of the play, his first crush was Rosaline, a niece of the Capulets, and it doesn't take much to persuade him to crash the Capulets' gala, where she will be.) Even the ensemble players are strong individually instead of just human fillers on the stage. Fauntleroy gives a lot of substance to the role of Romeo's best friend, Benvolio. Andrews is the strongest and most memorable Mercutio this critic has ever seen. Latta makes the Nurse a vibrant character. James's Friar Lawrence is clever and amiable. Register gives Tybalt an air of nobility and command.
Let's think about these interpretations because they make an enormous difference to the play, making it more than just about star-crossed lovers and family tragedy. In it there's a lot about social competition and bigotry. The Capulets were possibly nouveau riche and bred Juliet to marry well. They set their hopes on Count Paris, who was related to the Prince of Verona. That would give them higher stature in Verona. Montague is a Sephardic Jewish name. Many Jews fled Spain and Portugal and settled in Italy during the Spanish Inquisition. Verona was a city which was known for, among other things, book printing. Would the Capulets want to be associated with people who were expelled from another country? Not very likely.. Even if this theory were not the cause of the feud, the point is that its intensity could not be ignored. And under Lamos's brilliant direction, the audience feels that throughout the play.
Romeo and Juliet runs through November 19 at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. On Sunday, November 12, there will be a Directors Forum on "Bringing the Bard Life: Directing Shakespeare in the 21st Century." Panelists include Jack O'Brien, three-time Tony Award winner and former Artistic Director of the Old Globe Theatre, Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of The Public Theatre and Shakespeare in the Park, Evan Yionoulis, Obie Award winner and professor at the Yale School of Drama, Milla Riggio, Shakespeare scholar, and Mark Lamos. The discussion will take place immediately after the 3:00 matinee. For tickets call the box office at 203-227-4177. www.westportplayhouse.org
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg