The Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Strand Theatre opens with a directorial flourish that is not in the script. The actors, clad in eclectic garb, race through the audience, shouting Shakespearean insults like “You undigested pig nut!” Amid all the violent verbiage, the star-crossed lovers rest peacefully on a platform that is either a bier or a bed. A sober Friar Laurence watches the mayhem quietly from a balcony above.
The cacophony of this opening scene, contrasted with the sweet stillness of the tragic pair, immediately creates the sense of a society at war with itself, a loud, rude culture where pure love is doomed before it ever gets a chance to bloom.
But despite the wake-you-up start, this “Romeo and Juliet” is a slightly scattered affair, which, despite a few fine performances and moments of ingenuity, doesn’t quite add up. Under the co-direction of Bobbie Steinbach and Allyn Burrows, this modern-dress production is fast-paced and furious during the first half. The actors fly through the aisles at times and interact with members of the audience who are seated on bleachers onstage. The friar sings in Spanish. Mercutio raps. It seems as if the directors are trying to say something about contemporary society, with its mash-up of styles and I-need-it-yesterday speed.
But the concept is muddy and becomes a distraction from the beauty of the verse. The attempt to underscore the deep generational divide is, if anything, forced. Romeo’s friend Benvolio, for instance, is played by a woman (Paige Clark). Now that’s an interesting choice, but it seems the reason behind it was so that the directors could telegraph an offstage hookup between Benvolia and Mercutio. Horrors! Young people hook up!
This Verona is a place where the young folks speak the verse, yet also have their feet firmly planted in the 21st century. As Romeo, Jason Bowen has street smarts and swagger, even though he’s a young man infatuated with the idea of love. His exterior melts when he meets the Real Thing in the person of Juliet. He does an endearing little jump when he sees her, like his heart is pounding and his stomach is going flip-flop. Julie Ann Earls’s Juliet is, if less accomplished, similarly of our time. When she meets her new lover to get married, she knocks Friar Laurence out of the way and runs to Romeo, jumping up and straddling her legs around his waist. She and Romeo make an innocent pair, and their balcony scene ends with a chin-up and a creative kiss.
The lovers are surrounded by a mixed bag of supporting actors, and some seem out of place in Kathleen Doyle’s busy costumes. Maurice Emmanuel Parent wears camouflage pants as Mercutio, and there is a dangerous edge in his performance. He goes for physical comedy, high-fiving members of the audience and meowing during his battle with Tybalt (a tough Omar Robinson). He is eminently likable in this most likable of roles, so it’s odd that his death isn’t played out center stage. When he casts “a plague on both your houses,” it’s almost like an anticlimax.
Paula Langton refuses to be the butt of jokes as Juliet’s Nurse, and she carries herself with self-respect and strength. Of all the members of the older generation, she and Antonio Ocampo-Guzman as
Friar Laurence are the only ones who seem to feel the depth of the tragedy in the second half. But with her Pebbles ponytail and purple patterned pants, Langton looks like a servant out of “The Real Housewives of Verona.” By contrast,
Ocampo-Guzman, whose lightly accented English is mixed with Spanish phrases and songs, is dignified in a traditional monk’s robe.
The other older members of the feuding clans are somewhat stiff. The Capulets are an odd couple: Miranda Craigwell’s Lady Capulet is statuesque and buttoned up in demeanor, like a trophy bride given to wearing silk robes or evening gowns. Ken Baltin’s Capulet tries to be a tyrant in a poorly tailored suit, and he stretches credulity when he becomes abusive with his daughter. (And he hardly seems like the type of dad who would attend a ball in a flaming red suit or perform a slithery dance choreographed by Susan Dibble.) As Paris, Ben Rosenblatt is a wooden figure in black leather pants.
The costumes, needless to say, are distracting, perhaps part of a concept that was never fully realized. The pieces here just don’t add up. Janie E. Howland’s set, with banners depicting lovers and a body with a blood red heart, is effectively gloomy. But the production itself is bloodless, both literally and figuratively.
The Actors’ Shakespeare Project production begins the company’s 10th season, and there is no doubt that the troupe has filled a gap and made an indelible mark on the theatrical landscape locally. “Romeo and Juliet” starts with promise and, with its mixed-race lovers, unfolds in a refreshingly (if overly idealistic) post-racial world. But its disparate elements clash, and by the end of the second half, it fails to provoke that kick-in-the-gut, lump-in-your-throat feeling that you expect from a story of such woe.