If Hartford Stage Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak felt he wasn’t ready to stage “Romeo and Juliet” until after he passed his 50th birthday, we can only thank our lucky stars that we were around for his first attempt. The resulting production, which opened over the weekend of February 19-21 and runs at Hartford Stage now through March 20, is an intelligent, clever, visually enthralling and overall compelling take on what is said to be Shakespeare’s most popular play.
His decision to set the play in the neo-realistic phases of the Italian cinema (think Roberto Rosselini or Vittorio de Sica) works to the classic’s benefit, anchoring it in an easily identifiable Verona that at times amusingly reflects familiar elements of Italian culture that add a contemporary relevance. He obtains some indelible performances from several members of his cast, notably the Juliet of Kaliswa Brewster and the Romeo of Chris Ghaffari, who bring an effective mix of youthful naivety and emerging maturity to their characterizations.
A problem that many people have with “Romeo and Juliet” is the absolute split-second development of the pair’s immediate love at first sight obsession that transcends all parental, familial and societal barriers. Tresnjak’s production tries to offer some context for this sudden transition by, for example, making a noticeable laugh line out of Lady Capulet’s awkward inquiry as to whether or not the teenaged Juliet has given any thought to marriage, a subject that clearly has never been discussed before. This serves to give Juliet the permission to start seriously thinking about the subject and jump start her libido and sense of romanticism.
Similarly, Tresnjak gives ample attention to Romeo’s anguished fascination for the unseen Rosalind, which telegraphs a yet to mature, urgent attitude toward love. Of course, this only works thanks to the believability of Brewster and Ghaffari in the title roles, as Brewster conveys Juliet’s enthusiasm and excitement in being in the first throes of love and Ghaffari captures Romeo’s imitative bravado, inspired by his observation of his older Veronese brothers, and his general sense of decency, the result perhaps of his atypical closeness to the church (and perhaps a mentor in Friar Laurence) and his limited experience of the cutthroat world in the broader community. As a result, the young lovers’ ardor and enthusiasm is not only credible, but in its own way, rather charming, allowing the audience to enjoy their thrill of discovery.
The balcony scene, particularly for Ghaffari, becomes especially athletic as he stretches upward toward Juliet’s platform from where he dangles boyishly, while Brewster, elevated, appears to be absorbing all of the excitement from the wider world as she rationalizes her infatuation for a member of the rival family. These two young actors are both impressive “finds” on Tresnjak’s part, who has demonstrated consistent success in identifying outstanding young talent who can handle some of Shakespeare’s most difficult roles. Their glee is contagious and who cannot appreciate Romeo’s laying on the grass beneath Juliet’s window, imitating her moves and enthusiasm.
Tresnjak is also the scenic designer for his production, and his stage imagery is virtually inextricably linked to his design concept. A broad mausoleum wall fills the entire back of the set, lined with small, compact tombs, reflecting the lengthy history of the community and, based on the time period, the losses of the recently completed Second World War. Various signorina from the community tend the votive candles and flowers outside the tombs throughout the evening, often climbing movable ladders and observing and reacting to some of the action.
In the center of the set is a sunken gravel rectangle from which rises a structure that depending upon its height can be used as an altar, a bench, a tomb, an apothecary, and an apse where a quickie marriage can be arranged. The hustle and bustle of Verona occurs in the larger playing area around this rectangle, though Tresnjak is not shy about placing his actors up and down the theater’s aisles and even having his Romeo slide down one of the metal railings at the end of a section. He even offers an imposing iron grate that overshadows the tomb where Romeo and Juliet ultimately meet their fate.
Tresnjak does very well in depicting the behavior of young people, particulary in the threatening Tybalt of Jonathan Louis Dent, whose loyalty, defense and aggression on behalf of his Capulet cousins, suggests a stubborn cockiness with contemporary resonance, a Hotspur before his time. The short, lithe Wyatt Fenner has several memorable scenes as the talkative, antic Mercutio, Romeo’s boon companion who’s never afraid to offer his opinion or challenge his friend. His speed talking can be appropriately exhausting and his anguish and disgust quite palpable during his tragic denouement.
Two characters appear to have just popped off the screen out of “Open City” or “The Bicycle Thief.” Celeste Ciulla brings an Anna Magnani quality as Lady Capulet, overprotective of her family, resentful of the family’s enemies, the Montagues, and emotionally demonstrative regarding her daughter’s welfare. Bearing the weight of a conflicted intimate relationship with her charge, Kandis Chappell as Juliet’s Nurse is a towering, frequently formidable figure, ordering her hapless servant Peter around or holding her own against the jibes and taunts of the feckless Veronese youth, while demonstrating a soft spot for Juliet even in the midst of familial grief.
Timothy D. Stickney can feel menacing at times as the angry Capulet, particularly in a scene in which he finds that his position and privilege are being ignored by Verona’s ruling Prince Escalus and resorts to a familiar bullying, which proves to be equally ineffective. Charles Janasz portrays a Friar Laurence who is self-satisfied in his position within his order and in the community. He seems to hold a special fondness for Romeo that encourages him to over confidently put into place a scheme that turns out to have a few too many loose ends. Raphael Massie has several good moments as the easily distracted servant, Peter, though Bill Christ’s Escalus is rather low key even for leader trying to stop the violence associated with the Montague/Capulet feud.
Ilona Somogyi has captured the look and feel of those great Italian films, but working with a more vivid palette than just black and white. Ghafarri’s Romeo is nattily dressed in yellows and browns with a smashed fedora, while the print housedresses of the women of Verona and clerical garb of Friar Laurence’s brothers contribute to the Italian atmosphere. The young men are dressed in beach side casual, with Fenner’s Mercutio modeling the latest (for the late 1940’s) in skimpy male swimwear. Somogyi has also created an array of simplified masks that give just the merest hint of disguise for the ball scene at the Capulets when the star-crossed lovers first lay eyes upon each other.
Matthew Richards’ lighting conveys the oppressive impact of a bright hot sun at the height of summer, while gently rolling into the evening’s secretiveness as Romeo maneuvers post-dusk to the Capulet residence, later capturing the coldness and desolation of the Capulet tomb as lanterns herald the arrival of the rival families to settle the dreadful final accounting. His lighting of the mausoleum plaques is also quite effective as the candles’ impact grows as the afternoons dredge on.
There are any number of well-thought motions that indicate the amount of careful thinking that Tresnjak has devoted to this production, such as the classically-Italian hand to mouth gestures that the two families employ when describing their enemies or the truly sinister appearance of the apothecary as more of a black marketer than a healer.
This “Romeo and Juliet” provides an extraordinary amount of similar touches to admire, all in support of retelling a story that may be familiar to some, but Tresnjak assures remains fresh, exciting and unexpected every step of the way.
For information and tickets for “Romeo and Juliet,” visit the Hartford Stage website at www.hartfordstage.org or call the Box Office at 860.527.5151.