Romeo and Juliet
Few stories are as ubiquitous as "Romeo and Juliet.: Shakespeare’s tragedy of doomed, teen romance never ceases to inspire playwrights - from "West Side Story" to "2 Households, 2_____/ Shakespeare’s R & J," a two man performance, that is said to be a reasonably faithful (if truncated) version of the 1591 text, now at the Soho Playhouse in Manhattan’s South Village.
But as Marvin Gaye advised Tammi Terrell, "ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby."
Done straightforwardly, which is how this riveting production from Happy Medium presents it, the drama whirls by, out of your hands, even though you might like to stop it before everything goes so terribly wrong for all the characters.
Funny, sexy, suspenseful, violent, a cautionary tale about the costs of taking revenge, the Bard’s tale could be snatched from today’s headlines. It’s like a skeletal hand reaching out from its Elizabethan past delivering a warning.
HMT’s "Romeo and Juliet" continues through Aug. 25 at the Plaza Theatre in the Boston Center for the Arts. Scenic designer Brian Prywes gives the small stage an impressive stone-like backdrop with arches for actors to move through that has a nicely medieval feel that works well both for the city scenes and later the scene in the catacomb. Light and darkness are aptly conveyed by lighting designer Daniel Chevez for this play whose language makes considerable use of such imagery where, for instance, Juliet, like the sun, is "brighter than a torch, a jewel sparkling in the night" and she in turn describes Romeo as "day in night."
Guest director for this fringe company, notable actress Paula Plum (who recently has directed plays to acclaim as well), is at the helm of this intellectually and emotionally satisfying production.
She has a grip on the story’s flow with its myriad twists and turns.
She smoothly handles the transition of mood when mid play there’s a switcheroo where Shakespeare swerves from vaudevillian bawdy comedy to nail biting personal tragedy. Importantly, there is the change from the down-to-earth, one-of-the-gang Romeo, as she has directed him to be up to now, who then becomes more fluent in his language, more introspective, more severed from his emotional attachment to the city he loves.
Plum trips up in one respect - puzzling so - with the scene where the Nurse, Lady Capulet, and even Lord Capulet are cooking a feast for the new (hastily arranged) marriage ceremony date between Paris and Juliet which comes off stylistically as Julia Child in a TV episode gone amuck: "fetch more spices...come stir, stir, stir..."
The bulky Johnnie L. McQuarley’s linebacker physique makes him an unusual choice physically for Romeo who is more wiry in the popular imagination probably because of a lineage of actors in modern times from Maurice Evans, who was often cast as the slender limbed poet in movies, or the lean teen Leonard Whiting in Franco Zeffirelli’s Old Vic production in 1960 made into an award winning film of "Romeo and Juliet," and most especially to the lithe Leonardo DiCaprio in the lush 1996 Baz Luhrmann MTV inspired version.
The new and different look for Romeo offered by McQuarley makes you prick up your ears and watch a little more carefully to discover what depths this big fellow contains.
First the engaging McQuarley wins you over with an ingratiating smile that gives him a gentleness amid the rough housing forever going on with him and the throng of young men playing and warring on the streets of Verona. That soft side buttresses belief in his habit of falling in love so easily and then so hard when he meets Juliet. As McQuarley plays Romeo, he’s a good guy whose code of ethics jams him, who does have a temper after all, and who in love, gives his all.
His Juliet, the lushly Botticellian-shaped Lauren Elias, is a good pairing visually for McQuarley as is her teenage-like idealizing of romance and the sincerity in which she plays the role.
There are many noteworthy performances, for that matter, in a cast that mixes experienced actors with those making their debuts to good effect, such as Tina Blythe as Lady Capulet and Sharon Squires as Lady Montague.
Critic John Dryden had it that Shakespeare says he kills off Romeo’s friend, the lovable Mercutio midway in the play before Mercutio (wonderfully played by Joey C. Pelletier) takes the show away from Shakespeare, he’s such an entertaining character. Mercutio dies sweetly almost, but the ill-tempered Tybalt, played with dash and ferocity by Michael Underhill doesn’t let go so easily. A firebrand and trouble maker, Juliet’s cousin and a sworn enemy of anyone Montague fights Romeo with vigor in a dust up smartly choreographed by Angie Jepson.
Other highlights include the amazing June Kfoury, so memorable as the sexually repressed, sadistic mom in the Boston Children’s Theatre production of "Rock Lobster" earlier this season, who does an about face with the Nurse, who is tender hearted and frolicsome in an earthy way.
Arthur Waldstein, another gem of the Boston theater scene, gives the herbalist and confidant Friar Lawrence a cuddly quality that’s endearing and made poignant when it’s brought home to this mild mannered individual that he has done irremediable harm.
While one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in his time and throughout the years, "Romeo And Juliet" in Boston is probably more associated with dance than drama, with but a few professional theatrical stagings coming to mind: the recent Independent Drama Society’s production at the Factory Theater, the 1991 Roxbury Outreach Shakespeare Experience with Raphael Peacock as Romeo, and in 1982, the Boston Shakespeare Company production with Courtney Vance, a recent Harvard grad, as Benvolio.
Add in the interesting casting of an African American as Romeo and you have a show worth attending for its novelty as well as its excellence. (There is a long precedence for an actor of color taking the title role, going way back, to Ira Aldridge with the African Company in New York in 1824).
In a city whose summer at times has unhappily looked like the streets of Verona, "Romeo and Juliet" is a prime opportunity to reflect with a great poet on the whys and wherefors.
"Romeo and Juliet" continues through August 25, 2012, beginning Wednesday night and concluding with a matinee on Sunday afternoon. The shows are in the Plaza Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts, 537 Tremont St. in Boston’s South End. For more info you can go to www.happymediumtheatre.com.