- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

It's tough to be star-crossed lovers these days. Everyone knows your story: impetuous young people who defy their parents, only to die unnecessary deaths. Delivering lines such as, "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" is no fun, either: The audience has heard them a thousand times before, both in the play and in cultural detritus such as advertisements and third-rate comedy sketches.

Many die-hard Shakespeare fans probably groan inwardly at the mention of "Romeo and Juliet," which is a popular favorite but hardly of the same rank as "King Lear" or "Hamlet." The Shakespeare Theatre's attempt at the play might just intrigue the most jaded theatergoer. It's as fresh and unmannered as youth itself although the passion doesn't erupt as violently as it should.

Young British director Rachel Kavanaugh commendably doesn't show Mercutio and Romeo as closet homosexuals, or set the play in the 18th-century Australian outback. The Shakespeare Theatre's recent production of "Hamlet" also was played in medieval Denmark, just like it says in the play. Perhaps there is a new trend around Washington of doing Shakespeare straight. If so, let's encourage it.

Jennifer Ikeda looks perfect as Juliet and easily passes for a girl not yet 14. She does best with anger and exuberance and not so well with sorrow or melancholy.

Paul Whitthorne makes a decent Romeo, but to be fair, Romeo is not the greatest male part. Some scholars think his speeches are parodies of 16th-century romantic poetry, and that is amply supported by the text itself. Romeo's instant love for a girl across a room is so sudden that you wonder about his sanity.

Mr. Whitthorne and Miss Ikeda are best when they are together, and their handling of the two most famous scenes their first conversation and kiss in the Capulet house and the balcony scene are marvelous. The actors show their characters to be completely sincere in their mutual infatuation. Romeo truly believes Juliet is a holy creature who compels his adoration, and Juliet believes she was put on Earth to join herself to Romeo.

The lovers are supposed to be the eye of a hurricane of resentment, pride and violence that swirls around them and eventually flings them to their demise. The length of the script is punctuated by references to death, which become more and more frequent as the bloody climax approaches. However, the opening fight scene isn't vicious enough to provide the sense of menace that the rest of the play requires. The later fight, in which Mercutio (Harry Carnahan) and Tybalt (Andrew Long) die, does have the bitter taste of malice to it and gives the second act a needed dramatic boost.

The supporting performers distinguish the play. In the lobby during the intermission, I heard many people murmuring that the Nurse (Claudia Robinson) was the best thing about the play, and I wouldn't disagree with that. Friar Laurence is played by Joseph Marcell, a British actor best known as Geoffrey the butler in television's "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." He is one of those rare actors who makes each line compelling, and his presence onstage is an assurance that the scene will go well.

Edward Gero teases out latent aspects of Lord Capulet that may come as a surprise to those who think that the main theme of "R&J" is adult foolishness. He has a hidden streak of liberality and tolerates Romeo's presence at his party because he has nothing against the boy, despite his hatred of the Montague family. He is irascible at Juliet's disobedience, yet a caring father who goes to pieces at her death.

Technically, this "R&J" is exemplary. The minimal, inspired set by Peter McKintosh consists of balconies and catwalks supported by a number of wooden columns. We can still see entire bodies through the balcony rails, and the verticality makes the stage seem even bigger than it is. Hot white light envelops Juliet when her emotions are aroused, and the other straightforward but subtle lighting effects by Howell Binkley are welcome enhancements to the action.

Fabio Toblini's costumes are drawn from a variety of periods, and they mostly hang together, although the mix of Mercutio's jeans with Lady Capulet's high collars is a little too much. Real Franciscan friars have worn brown robes with ropes tied around their waists for 750 years; why give them blue robes with oversize, 1980s-style brown belts? The designers do right by Juliet, though her floor-length dresses and slips underscore her virginal purity and youth.

"I believe in text-led Shakespeare," Ms. Kavanaugh says in the program notes. "What one has to do is absolutely go back to the words on the page and then try to reveal that rather than impose any concept." Put another way, the plot simply unfolds, and the actors merely act. Although this production isn't perfect, it has a beautiful, endearing simplicity that can only be attributed to Ms. Kavanaugh living out her credo.


***

WHAT: "Romeo and Juliet"

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays (except May 7), Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and noon Wednesday and May 8

TICKETS: $15.50 to $64

PHONE: 202/547-1122 or online at www.shakespearetheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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