‘Romeo and Juliet’ blends darkness, light in agile Boston Common production
“Romeo and Juliet’’ is most firmly associated in the popular imagination with swoony, poetic love. The balcony scene, “What light through yonder window breaks?,’’ “Parting is such sweet sorrow,’’ and all that.
But Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy is also one of his most profoundly death-haunted works, and we’re talking well before that climactic double suicide inside the Capulet family tomb. The end of things is an abiding preoccupation from start to finish, given concrete utterance in a fatalistic remark by Lord Capulet, Juliet’s father: “Well, we were born to die.’’
Capulet tosses off that line after the play’s crucial, no-turning-back episodes: The slaying of Juliet’s cousin Tybalt by Romeo, taking instant revenge for his murder of Romeo’s friend Mercutio. Both Tybalt and Mercutio are young, and so is Paris, Juliet’s suitor, and so, of course, are Romeo and Juliet. All are dead by play’s end — and all are the victims, ultimately, of a foolish enmity kept alive by the myopic and vindictive older generation, who, like nations at war, can’t let go of pointless hostility.
In Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s fleet, free-flowing “Romeo and Juliet’’ on Boston Common, director Allegra Libonati adroitly blends shadow and light to tell a story that is as much about young death as young love.
Spectral figures wander the stage as the play progresses. At the end of Act 1, Libonati crafts a striking tableau that starkly juxtaposes the competing strains of love and death: Juliet stands on her balcony, delivering a rhapsodic soliloquy of newfound passion (“Give me my Romeo”) while on the stage below her, a dead body is being borne away as Juliet’s grim-faced Nurse (Ramona Lisa Alexander) heads toward the girl, extending a hand that contains a bloody cloth.
Earlier, Libonati deftly conjures the swirling pageant of the masked ball, and she brings the action into the audience at times by sending her actors on periodic excursions up the aisles. This is the first production in the 22-year history of Free Shakespeare on the Common to be directed by someone other than Commonwealth Shakespeare Company artistic director Steven Maler. (Disclosure: Libonati was assistant director on the 2015 American Repertory Theater production of my son Matthew’s opera, “Crossing.’’)
Gracyn Mix is a marvelously alive Juliet: resourceful, self-aware, a compound of feeling and intellect. The actress endows Juliet with real personality and real spirit (Shakespeare helps, of course). When Friar Laurence (Equiano Mosieri) prepares a vial of liquid that will make Juliet appear dead and allow her to avoid a forced marriage to Paris but only, the friar warns, if she’s not inhibited by “womanish fear,’’ Mix’s Juliet instantly commands, with certitude, scorn, and an eerie echo of that earlier soliloquy of love: “Give me, give me! Tell me not of fear!’’ Mix’s performance is so good that you start envisioning her as other independent-minded Shakespeare heroines, such as Rosalind in “As You Like It’’ or Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing.’’
Alas, a similar passion is seldom detectable in John Zdrojeski’s bland Romeo. While Zdrojeski speaks the poetry with admirable clarity — a virtue shared by the rest of the cast; this is an ensemble and a production that values the words — only occasionally does he convey the all-or-nothing stakes involved for the young lovers. So there is a problematic imbalance in the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, skewing the chemistry.
Kario Marcel is an exceptionally charismatic and witty Mercutio, while Alexander captures the Nurse’s comic and poignant qualities alike, utilizing a snorting laugh and dropping her voice into a lower register for emphasis. Brandon G. Green and Kai Tshikosi are solid as, respectively, Romeo’s friend Benvolio and the hot-headed Tybalt. While the splendid Celeste Oliva is largely wasted as Lady Capulet — the role just doesn’t give her enough to do — Fred Sullivan Jr. is a roaring force of nature as Lord Capulet. When Juliet balks at marrying Paris, Sullivan’s Capulet unleashes a stream of verbal cruelty that is downright harrowing.
In a relative rarity nowadays, when Shakespeare’s work is likely to be transposed to places and times different from the ones specified in his scripts, this “Romeo and Juliet’’ takes place in 14th-century Italy, as he intended. (The handsome and efficient set was designed by Julia Noulin-Merat; the period-specific costumes by Neil Fortin.)
One unpredictable variable for all of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s outdoor performances on the Common are contemporary street noises that can sometimes break the spell, but Wednesday night’s show was the opposite of star-crossed: Incursions from the outside world acted as virtual sound effects. At the very moment Romeo made his first appearance, atop a wall, a helicopter dramatically clattered overhead. Near the beginning of the masked ball, just as the revelers temporarily fell silent, bells from a nearby church tolled. And when Romeo and Juliet exchanged their first tender, hope-filled kiss, a siren screamed, as if in warning of bad times ahead.
ROMEO AND JULIET
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Allegra Libonati. Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. At Boston Common, through Aug. 6. Admission is free. A limited number of reserved chairs are available for a $75 donation. To reserve chairs: 617-426-0863, www.commshakes.org