Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Shakespeare’s classic tragic love story “Romeo & Juliet” opened at the Hartford Stage this past weekend telling the story of love physically stifled by miscommunications and hatred in the blood yet prevailing thematically and historically.
How do you retell Shakespeare’s most popular play in a way that’s unique?
Well, to start with, you have Darko Tresnjak, directory of Hartford Stage original “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” turned Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, as artistic director and scenic designer.
“’Romeo & Juliet’ is a play of seemingly infinite possibilities, reinvented from generation to generation for over 400 years, a symbol of romantic love infused with iconic imagery and unforgettable language that has become a part of the vernacular,” Tresnjak said in a statement. “We look forward to exploring this eternally modern play with a company of great stage veterans and rising stars.”
This set was sheer poetry visually. It starts off simple with a pebble Zen garden-like landscape center stage, serving as a town square of sorts, backed by stacked tombstones with background actors constantly adding flowers or candles as part of the scenery. The center of the gravesite has an electronic door that moves up and down and creates an additional upstage set for highlighted actors. It also has a protruding moveable platform that serves as Juliet’s balcony. The Zen garden section of the stage has a center piece that rises and lowers, either carrying actors up, elevating Juliet on top of the stone bed in the final scene or serving as an altar for Romeo & Juliet’s wedding. While it’s a fairly bare set, the pieces that do move are top-notch engineering and by no means simple.
The actors also make their way into the audience, drawing the crowd in by utilizing the aisles and treacherously balancing on the railings right alongside patrons as they deliver lines. It helped give height to their performances and humor.
Because the set is so bare, lighting gave an ominous feel in the nighttime scenes. Romeo’s friend and the prince’s kinsman, Mercutio (Wyatt Fenner) delivered a beautifully mischievous monologue before crashing the Capulets’ party with strategically placed flashlights casting his shadow three times onto the stone grave wall behind him, making his character bigger than life. Literal foreshadowing, perhaps, for the dark end in store for his character?
The costuming, by Ilona Somogyi, modernized the characters’ dress a bit, making the show more visually relatable to a contemporary audience.
Tresnjak also cast diverse actors. Most of the Montagues were white and most of the Capulets, including Juliet and her parents, were black, adding a slight racial element to the families’ rivalries. It’s something that’s been done before on Broadway in the version with Orlando Bloom as Romeo and Condola Rashad as Juliet. There’s a line when Romeo is describing Juliet as “fair,” which could be construed as the color of her skin, but Shakespeare uses a lot of wordplay that has multiple meanings, so that doesn’t have to be a physical description and could instead connote her purity and innocence. This is a moment where the director uses casting to present an alternate and unique interpretation of the text that brings a refreshing quality to the story.
While it’s not a musical, the production utilized music at specific parts, including tribal melodies in the Capulets’ party.
Chris Ghaffari delivers us a playful, comical and intellectual Romeo with a Bruno Mars/Jason Mraz look to him with his vest and hat. Kaliswa Brewster brings youth, passion and positive spirit to his lover, Juliet, reminding us her character is only a teenager. The lovers fall hard for each other and marry in a day after meeting at Juliet’s family’s masquerade party, emphasizing the themes of identity, deceit and layers of human beings. While seemingly unrealistic and foolish, this is a love story that transcends time and sends a message about prejudice and misguided hatred.
Given that the lines are in a more antiquated form of English in Shakespearean tongue, you may not always understand what’s being said. But that’s why the acting is so important. The actors deliver their lines in a more emphatic and expressive way that allow us to understand their meaning and emotions even if we don’t know exactly what they’re saying.
Fenner stood out as a manic Mercutio, the production’s jester at times and other times erupting with rage.
His death has artistic qualities to it. He tries to get on his bicycle, which he is always riding, but is not strong enough to move it while he is moving us all. That moment, like his bicycle, is a vehicle to redirect the plot. He also uses an artificial blood capsule in his mouth and body, smearing the blood on himself like it is paint. Fenner clearly worked out for the role, bearing his six pack in the rumble.
The fight choreography was precise and powerful. Fenner and Jonathan Louis Dent, as Capulet nephew Tybalt, were visibly breathing though when they were supposed to be dead and you could see their stomachs moving up and down. They could have taken shorter breaths to avoid that and stay more still like Brewster and Ghaffari.
Timothy D. Stickney gave a jovial and understanding quality to Capulet, praising Romeo before he kills Tybalt despite the rivalry between their families. That goes away, of course, when there’s a murder in the family.
Who is responsible for the death of Romeo and Juliet ultimately? Is it the impulsive and foolish nature of the youths? Is it the judgement and scorn between the Capulets and Montagues? Or, do we shoot the messenger who never delivers the ever-important message to Romeo about Juliet faking her death with a sleeping potion? Or, is the person who orchestrated Juliet’s whole escape plan and went behind the backs of the lovers’ families to marry them – Friar Laurence (Charles Janasz)?
Janasz gives more weight to his character’s responsibility in the whole scheme, breathing remorse into the friar as he pleads at the end while revealing the part he played in the deceit that led to the young lovers’ suicides.
The question may go unanswered, but one thing’s for certain. It’s a “Romeo and Juliet” to be remembered.
The play runs through March 20 at the Hartford Stage on Church Street. You can visit www.hartfordstage.org for more information about the productions and tickets.