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theatre review: Romeo and Juliet: The Greatest Hate Story Ever Told

A Few Excellent Actors Can...t Save Otherwise Turbulent, Unimpressive Production

By Jacqueline O’Connor

Romeo and Juliet

American Repertory Theatre

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Gadi Roll

Loeb Drama Center, Harvard Square

Runs until March 25, 2006

Those who didn’t snooze through high school English know the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet, two lovers divided by injustice, prejudice, and their violent, warring families. Despite the obvious dismal overtones of the play, it is often referred to as “the greatest love story ever told,” or “the love story from which all others come,” or something equally pompous. It’s pretty easy to agree, though, that it is a story about love — until you see the version at the American Repertory Theatre.

At first glance, the performance was very stylized. The stage was simple: a long rectangle filled with dark sand and, for stage edges and walls, just metal grating. The audience sat on two opposite sides of the stage, creating a feeling of a “theatre in the round” or a blackbox theatre. The music was funky and ranged from hip-hop to Arvo P rt. The props were simple and sparse, and only the lighting, which varied from chandeliers to a bright spotlight from stage right, was intricate and significant. The choreography was well-executed and each character had a unique physical presence.

The party scene was the height of the stylization of the play. Three red carpets were laid under three rows of glittering chandeliers, and the guests entered in three lines, dancing with violent and exaggerated movements to loud hip-hop music that shook the entire theatre. The men were dressed in tuxedos with lavish capes, while the ladies were dressed in a wide array of Spanish looking dresses of black, white, and red. Even through the scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet, the raucous dancing continued on the edges of the stage and the music was so deafening that the magic of the moment was completely lost.

Despite the obvious effort that the directors put into giving the show a unique ambiance, the majority of the actors let that effort go to waste with forced acting and lack of depth and nuance. From beginning to end, the usual wit and tender emotion of the script was missing. Unfortunately, most actors did not grasp the opportunity afforded them by the audience’s nearness to deliver a rich performance. For example, the opening scene that features the famous line, “No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bit my thumb, sir,” was played angrily — as if the actors did not realize that the whole scene was a play on words.

Things only got worse when Romeo (Mickey Solis) appeared on stage, and from his very first lines it became obvious that he was going to express one emotion the entire play: anger. Perhaps previous interpretations of the lovesick Romeo have predisposed the viewer to a false expectation of his character, but lines such as “Love is a smoke made with the fume of signs/ Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes/ Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers’ tears,” should not be wrathfully sputtered. His rage continued throughout the play until the very end, by which time his only mode of expression was monotonic yelling. From the time he killed Tybalt (Marc Aden Gray), Solis seemed to lose his personality and became oddly zombie-like in his lack of both vocal and physical expression.

Romeo was not the only character who exhibited anger and violence throughout the entire play. Mercutio, in his encounter with the nurse as she seeks to confirm Juliet’s affections to Romeo, threatened the nurse with a knife as he cruelly taunts her about being a whore. Also, Capulet, Juliet’s father, physically abuses both Juliet and Lady Capulet in his rage over Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris. Finally, the seemingly playful bantering of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio, turned into vicious and crude jeering. The extreme portrayal of violence and hate in scenes where a lighter tone was obviously intended made the play dismal and bland to watch. By the end, every character was enraged and there was no variation to keep the interest of the audience.

Fortunately, three key actors saved the play from utter failure. Shining through as the obvious star of the show, Juliet, played by Annika Boras, stole the hearts of the audience with her vibrant and balanced portrayal of a young girl torn between her family, her love, and her growing sense of self. Portrayed in this version as somewhat of a tomboy, Juliet walked with a stride in her knee-high boots and effused an air of self-confidence. Boras dispelled the common notion that Juliet is a flaky young girl and used the brilliant lines Shakespeare provides in order to show Juliet’s intelligence. Most importantly, Boras gave a balanced performance of the character and through her words and actions, accurately portrayed a girl going through a difficult period in her life. At times she was angry, like many others in the production, but this was balanced with episodes of self-doubt, and moments of true tenderness.

Juliet’s nurse, played by ART veteran actress Karen MacDonald, added a touch of levity to the otherwise somber atmosphere. MacDonald played her character with a good balance and a keen believability. Her character was not the doting nurse of some other productions, but a guilt-tripping though always loving mother figure for Juliet. Despite her best intentions, however, her flawed side showed through in her manipulation of Juliet’s curiosity after meeting with Romeo, just as her pathetic side was played out in her helplessness after Romeo’s banishment. The myriad of emotions that MacDonald clearly portrayed made the Nurse one of the most memorable characters of the night.

Finally, Che Ayende’s Mercutio was the icing on the cake of this wonderful trio. Not only was Ayende able to depict a believable character, but he was a master interpreter of Shakespeare’s words. In the character’s most prominent scene, where he coaches a love-struck Romeo before the Capulet party, Ayende brought down the house with his sly tactics and expressive monologues. His unusual use of rhythm that does not adhere to the strict metering of Shakespeare’s pentameter enables him to bring more meaning and emotion to the monologue. Though Mercutio dies in the third act, his performance alone makes the play worth seeing.

It is obvious what the producers were looking to portray in this version of Romeo and Juliet. Though Shakespeare does reference violence, death, and sadness throughout the entirety of this play, he originally listed it as a comedy. It is as if the great author intended for there to be a dichotomy between love and hate, life and death, and comedy and tragedy. The ART production of Romeo and Juliet only managed to get half of this message across: hate, death, and tragedy.