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Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Romeo and Juliet
Hartford Stage
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Kaliswa Brewster and Chris Ghaffari
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Directing and also designing, Darko Tresnjak has fashioned a most imaginative set which fuels but does not dominate his distinctively encompassing production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Continuing at Hartford Stage through March 20th, the show, benefiting from tenderly inspiring performances by youthful and radiant title characters, this nearly three hour presentation is ever rich.

Shakespeare, around 30 years of age when he wrote the play, accomplishes reams within five days before the tragedy culminates. It is an intimate piece and includes comedy, tension, and, most assuredly, romance. The stars (Kaliswa Brewster as Juliet and Chris Ghaffari as Romeo) are physically attractive and effectively portray adolescents.

It's about the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues in Italy. Tresnjak chooses to stage this, as he has explained, with allusion to neo-realist cinema. Hence, perhaps mid-1960s. Costume designer Ilona Somogyi outfits the many players in comfortable, easy attire which is perfectly evocative of time and place. The entire rear wall of the set bestows a packed mausoleum. Women come around to tend to flowers which recall all who have passed on. There is a squarish, slightly lowered area, center stage, filled with whitened stones and perhaps some sand. It serves as a performance space, dancing area and much more. The set choices influence all that transpires yet allow for Shakespeare's verse to carry forth. The director's perception enables context and perspective.

Capulet (Timothy D. Stickney) is giving a ball. Romeo, a Montague, is persuaded to attend. Many are masked/disguised. Romeo and Juliet cannot resist one another. A platform slides forward from an upper level and this becomes Juliet's balcony. Romeo, muscular and gymnastic, is able to grab it from ground level and lift himself upward. In short, the star-crossed ones need to be married and Friar Laurence (Charles Janasz) will facilitate.

Tybalt (Jonathan Louis Dent), a Capulet nephew who is upset that Romeo was at the ball, wants to fight Romeo. Romeo resists, but his good friend Mercutio (Wyatt Fenner) steps in. Previous to this time in the current production, Mercutio has added great joy through his animated, wiry self. The director elects to have Mercutio bop around in circles on a bike. I could not help but recall Vittorio De Sica's movie The Bicycle Thief, even if the content could not be more dissimilar. The period bicycle, though, is recognizable. Mercutio is killed and Romeo, newly incensed, slays Tybalt.

During the initial acts, Romeo and Juliet is far from tragic. It has been a story of legendary attraction, of friendship, of intra-generational warmth (Juliet's Nurse, played by Kandis Chappell, is a moving and knowing supporting presence). A series of events, however, darken the entirety of this poetic, symmetrical Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet are fated to die. These young lovers are beset with reality and must cope with extremes. They are victims not really of their own characters but of the stars or the universe. Future promise is obliterated. Their love might have been timeless but, instead, the storyline, so familiar, remains heartbreaking.

It happens that Tresnjak has selected people of color for several key roles while most of the cast members are lighter complected. The director has explained that his choices were based upon talent of the performers. That accepted, having African-American Kaliswa Brewster opposite, so to speak, Chris Ghaffari, a white man, is positively affecting and successful. The photogenic actors are disciplined, passionate, and dextrous with the language. It is easy to caught up and somehow hope that the inevitable is somehow eluded.

The large cast is fully in synch at all moments. Fight choreographer Steve Rankin lends a balletic touch to grappling scenes with knives. Matthew Richards' lighting is varied and mood altering. Jane Shaw's fine sound delivery is essential and it varies according to need.

Finally, however, this Romeo and Juliet realizes the masterfully inventive vision Dark Tresnjak once again brings to Hartford Stage. This versatile director immerses himself in the Shakespeare and is able, through teams of individuals, to realize his aspiration. That accomplishment is profound.

Romeo and Juliet continues at Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut through March 20th, 2016. For tickets, call (860) 527-5151 or visit

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