"Romeo and Juliet" opens at Hartford Stage

In the theater and film world of today, a Shakespeare production has to be unique: it must present itself to an audience through the casting and setting of the story just as much as the words of the Bard. This is because moving Shakespeare’s stories from their place and time of origin into another setting can sometimes help to align the meaning and morals of the play with an updated mindset. This has become the norm- it seems like a novelty for one of Shakespeare’s plays to be performed in its original setting.
A trendy change of scenery is always a bit of a risk, but it can be wildly successful. When Orson Welles placed his stage production of Macbeth among the warring tribes of a Caribbean island in his so called “Voodoo Macbeth” of 1936, he understood how gorgeously that setting would align with Shakespeare’s vision of the foggy moors of feudal Scotland. But when directors choose to insert Shakespeare into places that are interesting and intellectual, but not necessarily relevant to the story itself, the adaptation can fall into self-indulgence.
The production of Romeo and Juliet that is running at Hartford Stage right now draws its setting from director Darko Tresnjak’s vision of Italian neorealist cinema: the production is designed to harken back to the beautiful but grubby postwar masterpieces of Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City) and Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief).
The connection is pretty loose: these films deal with the symptoms and miseries of war, and that doesn’t come across in Romeo and Juliet no matter where it is set. There is a certain cleverness to the attempt, and the set design and costuming are triumphant, but it doesn’t work the way it was expected to. Right out of the gate, the audience is left feeling a bit of a disconnect.
Romeo and Juliet are played by Chris Ghaffari and Kaliswa Brewster respectively. Both seem gifted and enthusiastic to explore their roles. These are good, solid performances. But something is missing. Even when Shakespeare himself did much of the heavy lifting in the 1590’s when he wrote his immortal love story, real identifiable chemistry is something these actors needed to cultivate on their own, and they didn’t quite get the job done.
But like an underground oil deposit, the emotional deeps of the play are still waiting to be reached and used to great effect. If the actors playing our titular leading lovers had found the underlying chemistry and tenderness in their characters rather than simply “performing Shakespeare” in the standard way, we would have an altogether different and more impactful play. But the central performances, while perfectly acceptable and carefully conceived, never reach great heights.
It’s a safe bet to say that this production drew much of its concept from a few more recent film adaptations of the classic play. Because Tresnjak’s neorealism idea doesn’t quite take off, we are left with an unfortunately foggy setting. Baz Luhrmann’s visually lush but emotionally lacking 1996 film Romeo+Juliet cannot be far down the list of influences, and there is something vaguely West Side Story about the whole affair. A curious development, considering that West Side Story is already a retelling Romeo and Juliet in the first place. Even if these were not conscious decisions, the director must have predicted that these parallels would be drawn- though it might be more accurate to say that he should have predicted these connections.
All this begs the question: Why should Romeo and Juliet take place in a vaguely rendered (not to mention infinitely cleaner) version of Rosellini’s Italy? There is no clear reason. Setting is too important to be picked on a whim, and the connection between Romeo and Juliet and this very particular place in time should have been drawn with much clearer intentions.
These flaws are distracting, but there are some excellent performers in the cast of Romeo and Juliet notwithstanding. Each of the actors is functionally talented, though there are clear highs and lows. It’s unfortunate that Wyatt Fenner’s Mercutio felt the need to be quite as expressive as he was. This particular character was played to excess- so much so that he becomes flat out annoying, braying his famous Queen Mab speech with a slow shrillness as he circles the stage on a bicycle. All of this culminates in a death scene that is far, far over the top. Mercutio is a tricky character, and while his inherent flamboyance is entertaining, he is disastrous to get wrong.
Interestingly, it is the more mature actors who really shine. In fact the older generation of characters, usually portrayed to be out of touch with the love and loss felt by their children in the Capulet and Montague households are played so effectively that we empathize with them a bit too much. From this refreshed but off-center perspective, the older generation is subjected to a pretty tough time: their children simply will not stop stabbing one another.
Special recognition ought to go to Charles Janasz’s Friar Laurence, as well as to Kandis Chappell’s Nurse. The two mature actors are impressive, and have clearly been around the block a few times.
While a dose of subtlety would have gone a long way in Hartford Stage’s Romeo and Juliet, there is still nothing quite like seeing Shakespeare performed on stage in today’s busy world. The magic of Shakespeare is present here, and is conjured up every time his words are spoken. Hearing them is a gift, and one that never gets old.

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