By Pat Launer
It could be said that the characters in Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet” have poor impulse control and unrestrained emotionality.
Perhaps this notion undergirded The Old Globe’s production of the play.
Just about everyone on the Festival Stage rants, raves, rails and rages. There’s an inordinate amount of bellowing and wailing. Subtlety is not paramount.
The huge sandbox centerstage (designed by Takeshi Kata) serves as the evening’s playing space, but proves to be more intrusive than instructive or illustrative. It’s noticeably difficult for the barefoot cast to run or dance in the sand. Perhaps that’s why the duels seem so abbreviated.
Our first glimpse of the proceedings is two white-clad children playing together in the sand, as the rest of the cast looks on benevolently. Does this suggest that Romeo and Juliet, those hapless offspring of long-feuding families, knew each other in their youth? Or is it a commentary on innocence, too soon lost? The youngsters do not reappear until the end, playing absently and unnervingly with the hand or hair of the two teen corpses.
When Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time, as adolescents, neither of them is masked (at the ostensible masked ball), but they still don’t recognize each other.
During the boisterous, over-the-top first half of the nearly three-hour evening, Mick Jagger puts in a surprise appearance. Well, a reasonable facsimile, as a rambunctious, energetic/frenetic Mercutio (Ben Chase) struts Jagger-style, taunts Juliet’s Nurse singing The Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” Romeo, an oft-strolling guitarist, warbles Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Juliet tells the sad tale of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.”
Though director Barry Edelstein (The Globe’s Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director) has cut a good deal of the text, the play still runs long, due to considerable musical additions (original music by Mark Bennet, performed live by pianist/conductor Justin Gray), including sly references to “West Side Story” and the theme from the classic 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film, “Romeo and Juliet.”
The costumes (Judith Dolan) have a ’50-‘60s sensibility, with suits for the men and light-toned shirtwaists as party attire for the women. The gender-bending casting does not always fit comfortably.
Sharp tonal shifts and varied acting styles surface throughout. The sound (Sten Severson) is crisp, but the lighting (Stephen Strawbridge), particularly of the upstage Verona cityscape, is unsubtle; saturated primary colors predominate, with red drenching the stage to mark the deaths.
Except for the thoroughly believable attraction between the title characters, there’s surprisingly little genuine loving kindness here, not even in the Nurse (talented Candy Buckley, in a very odd turn), the Friar (a choleric Jesse L. Perez) or the icy Montague and Capulet parents.
The second half settles down and becomes more somber, as the catastrophic missteps cascade and multiply.
The death scene, one of the greatest and most heartbreaking in all of literature, is nicely handled — as is the language and lyricism throughout.
The play still packs a gut-punch of all-too-timely topics: parents poisoning their children with prejudice and hate; violence as the first response to any conflict or disagreement; the chasm between parents and children, and the elders’ ignorance or disregard of the wants or needs of their progeny; the horrors — and warning signs — of teen suicide; and the perils of too-young, too-fast, too-deep infatuation. (Romeo and Juliet meet one night, and marry the next afternoon).
As Juliet, Louisa Jacobson has the pulsating impetuosity of a teenager (why is she 16 here, when the text clearly says she’s about to turn 14?). Her profligate joy in love and unchecked anguish in bereavement are palpable, visceral. Aaron Clifton Moten’s Romeo is similarly rash, passionate and instinctive. They’re wonderfully matched.
And their characters’ demise is, as always, the world’s immeasurable loss.
- “Romeo and Juliet” runs through Sept. 15 on The Old Globe’s outdoor Festival Stage in Balboa Park
- Performances are Tuesday-Sunday at 8 p.m. through the end of August; Sept. 1-15: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
- Running Time: 2 hrs. 45 min.
- Tickets (starting at $30) are at 619-234-5623 or TheOldGlobe.org
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
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