The first half of Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s Romeo and Juliet ends with a tour-de-force sword fight.
After many near misses, Tybalt (fiercely played by Mary Beth Lacki) sneaks in a death blow to the ever-merry and lascivious Mercutio (Nick Gerwitz.) Then, the outraged Romeo (Jonas Barranca) has a muscular brawl with Tybalt, finally wrestling her to the ground and stabbing her again and again as she cries out in agony.
By then, the skills of fight choreographer Steve Vaughn and the actors have been amply displayed. The audience is aghast at the violence wrought by feuding families. But director Tom Loughlin delivers another direct hit: Departing from the Bard’s text, he has Romeo’s best friend and moral conscience, Benvolio, (Marie Hasselback-Costa) survey the carnage and decide to slit her own throat. She falls next to her comrade and lover, the slain Mercutio.
Loughlin’s dramatic stopping point in this Buffalo, NY, production foreshadows the lovers’ tragic ending. But, unfortunately, it’s also the most riveting part of the play. The production is entertaining and full of angst, as it should be. But it’s also full of distractions that sometimes prove more engaging than the original storyline, and therefore pulls the emotional punch that this tragedy should deliver.
Loughlin choses to portray Mercutio and Benvolio as a man and woman who can’t keep their hands off each other instead of as two loyal, ribald male friends. Gerwitz and Hasselback-Costa make the characters sizzle with sexuality, bravado, and athleticism, causing the audience to invest great mental energy in that relationship. So when the pair disappears at intermission, the audience isn’t sure where to look. Whiny, love-struck adolescents hardly seem attractive by comparison.
Barranca plays the dreamboat Romeo well, and is appropriately ruled by his outsized emotions. Smitten by infatuation for Rosaline, he’s languid. Upon meeting Juliet, he’s energized. Possessing great hair and biceps, Barranca climbs part way up the balcony using only his arms at first. You can’t mistake his eagerness to join his new lover. When he learns he’s been banished from Verona because of Tybalt’s death, he sobs through the speech in which he laments that a fly has the freedom to land on Juliet’s hand, while he is forbidden to touch that hand.
There’s something amiss with Juliet, though. Kathleen Denecke is pretty and articulate, has great comic timing and showcases Juliet’s ricocheting feelings. But she plays Juliet with too much gravitas, forgetting the childish giddiness a 13-year-old would experience upon falling in love.
While one might argue with Loughlin’s choice to elevate Benvolio and Mercutio, two other staging decisions were perfect. Romeo’s and Juliet’s first encounter at the Capulet ball happens on a lower step of the stage while ensemble members Matt Dell’Olio and Lauren O’Brien perform a tender ballet duet on the main level of the stage. All the characters except Romeo and Juliet are watching the dancers, oblivious to the fireworks igniting in the young couple. Suddenly, though, you see the moment when only Juliet’s nurse switches her attention from the dancers to her charge, too late to stop her from falling in love.
Later, when the lovers meet secretly and pledge their love, the actors move onto the grass within arm’s reach of the audience, bringing the theater goers into their intimacy. Juliet starts out on the balcony, but that feature of the set ends up being a mere metaphor rather than a true impediment.
Many of the minor roles are executed well enough to nearly steal the show. Saul Elkin, who founded the company 40 years ago and remains its artistic director, brings considerable experience and warmth to the role of Friar Laurence. Part nurturing father-figure, part match-maker, his Friar is the comfortable counter-point to the imperious Lords and Ladies Capulet and Montague. It’s hard to imagine a more mellifluous voice than Elkins’ and it’s understandable that he is the one to utter the chorus’ prologue.
Another veteran, Eileen Dugan, plays a delightful Nurse, going on and on and on and on with her stories, seeming to gain energy with each turn of phrase, even as she drains energy from her on-stage listeners.
The costumes in this production are a distraction. They seem to be a mishmash of contemporary Renaissance-influenced garments and fitness wear ordered from a number of popular catalogues. Costume designer Ken Shaw has chosen a mostly grey, black, and white palette that harkens the somber grey-and-black set design by Nathan Elsener. But there are touches of brilliant — even neon — color that don’t communicate anything understandable.
Juliet stands out in purple, but then she disguises herself in a bright teal hoodie adorned with flowers to visit the monastery in a suicidal mood. Huh?
Most confusing is Paris (Adam Wrath). Written as a credible suitor, in this production his actions and dress paint him as an effeminate doofus. Shaw clothes him in a short-sleeved tan hoodie and black Lycra gauntlets from wrist to mid bicep, with an olive green kilt over compression capris. His formal wear is a green vest added to this weird ensemble. Paris, meanwhile, speaks in a reedy voice and fights as awkwardly as he dresses. As concerned about status as the Montagues are, it’s hard to imagine they’d choose a suitor who dressed and handles a sword this poorly.
In all, Buffalo’s Romeo and Juliet isn’t too bad way to spend a summer evening, but it may prove a bit disappointing for the serious Shakespeare fan.