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Honest performance of Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, performed by the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble in the Sala de Puerto Rico. Last performance tonight, Tuesday, April 23.

Thumbs up to the Shakespeare Ensemble and their new director Derek Campbell. Their production of Romeo and Juliet runs like a train hell-bent on disaster. It is some of the best drama I have seen on a college stage, and it is certainly worth your while.

Romeo and Juliet is a deceiving play. Scholars all seem to agree that it lacks the depth and grandeur of Shakespeare's later tragedies -- most notably Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. Its plot is certainly simpler, but its thematic material speaks with great power. In studying the conflict between ungovernable adolescent passion and conventional adult wisdom, Shakespeare peopled his play with the most humane of characters. The play is fascinating because the author doesn't take sides.

Campbell and his cast have presented this aspect of the play with great success. Romeo and Juliet are endearingly in love; however, there are times when the audience can't help but laugh at their foolishness. Capulet rages at his daughter not because he is an evil old man, but because he is an exasperated father.

Friar Laurence gives wise counsel, but his inability to muster courage for his own convictions costs the lovers their lives. But the Ensemble's production lets us understand why each character does the things he or she does; as a result, when the play has run its bloody course, we cannot condemn anyone.

Jay Slagle '85 and Andrea Dann W'87 bring remarkable energy and courage to the title roles. They display an astonishing range of emotion without once falling into clich'e. They communicate with each other both vocally and physically without being artificial, and they both more than hold their own when apart.

But talented as they are, Slagle and Dann need and get a lot of help from the rest of the cast. Michael Levine turns in a Mercutio as engaging and impish as the fabled Queen Mab he discourses about. His bawdy diatribes, which at times reach sinister proportions, contrast with Romeo's lovesickness in an unexpected way; they are the cries of a man who desperately wants to love, but is afraid of the emotion.

Carl Kraenzel '87 plays the pivotal role of Friar Laurence thoughtfully and convincingly. He has both a great voice and a great physical presence, but I found his old-man's shaking a bit distracting, especially in his earlier scenes. Andrea McGimsey '87 (the Nurse) has promise; she plays with restraint, refusing to go after the cheap laugh, giving us instead a well-meaning, but ignorant old woman. She has a tendency, however, of letting her old woman's voice slow down the pace of a scene.

I can't say enough about the play's direction. Campbell is always in control of the playing space. He stages scenes decisively and creates striking stage pictures. And he suffuses key scenes with comedy and pathos simultaneously. That's the kind of stuff that blows audiences away.

Geoff Pingree's fight choreography is breath-taking and I think you'll agree that the opening mel'ee is alone worth the price of admission.

The production is not without flaws, but on the whole, they are so inconsequential that I hesitate to enumerate them. One of my quibbles has to do with the staging of the party scene in Act One: I would like to have seen Capulet and Tybalt placed on the balcony. Staged in this way, their fiery exchange over Romeo could draw even more pointed attention from the dancers below, and Tybalt could be even more frustrated because his enemy is not immediately accessible.

I also had reservations about the pacing in the early part of the play. The quieter scenes in the first two acts tended to drag; actors weren't picking up their cues as quickly as they could, and some of the longer speeches were plagued with repetitious cadences. Perhaps some of the actors need a more concentrated warm-up. In any case, these problems have probably vanished in subsequent performances.

The play's greatest enemy is triteness, and any production that fails to attack it honestly will have serious problems. My hat is off to the Shakespeare Ensemble for its honesty. Don't miss Romeo and Juliet -- tonight's the last night.

Bill Bryant->