Few plays carry the weight of familiarity and expectation shouldered by Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." So how does Ten Thousand Things' current production make a work that has become a byword for young love seem fresh? By making it lean, urgent and in-your-face immediate.
Buoyed by Peter Vitale's alternately lyrical and percussive musical backdrop, eight actors on a mostly bare stage conjure the violence-riven world of this play out of language and emotion.
Director Peter Rothstein demonstrates the hostilities between the rival Capulet and Montague families in street brawls choreographed by Annie Enneking to be almost balletic, giving a sense that this enmity runs so deep it's become ritualized. Regina Marie Williams' powerfully portrayed Prince only heightens this atmosphere of primeval grievance when she orders the two families into an uneasy truce in tones of outrage and towering exasperation.
Against this charged background, Namir Smallwood's Romeo and Anna Sundberg's Juliet stand out in stark relief. Smallwood, in particular, creates a fully inhabited Romeo, his mobile face transparently reflecting emotions and quicksilver nuances of mood as he falls precipitously in love. He's clearly at ease with the language and overlays it with a modern tenor that makes it fully accessible, capturing both its lyricism and its wit. Sundberg, though not perhaps as expressive as Smallwood, offers a nicely turned performance as Juliet and nimbly demonstrates her character's rapid segues between joy and despair over the course of the play. The two embody a luminous sense of completeness in sharp contrast to the fractured and frenetic action that swirls around them.
Rothstein has assembled a strong cast to take on the remainder of the roles. Bob Davis is a standout as a capricious Lord Capulet, swinging manically between tender concern for his daughter and willful fury when she crosses him. Karen Wiese-Thompson gives a comic, yet nuanced performance as the Nurse. Kurt Kwan provides a solid and affable presence as Benvolio. Although Dennis Spears is fairly stiff and perfunctory as Tybalt, he offers up a kindly and paternal Friar Lawrence.
Two of the broader characterizations in this production — David Darrow's swaggering, hard-partying Mercutio and Williams' brittle, affected Lady Capulet — while entertaining, feel as though they were intended more to play to the audience than to meld with the rest of the action.
These are minor shortcomings, however, in the face of an overall arresting and vivid production that brilliantly summons up the heat and raw emotion of "Romeo and Juliet" and demonstrates clearly why it has remained a powerfully evocative tale for more than 400 years.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.