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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Romeo and Juliet Comes Vividly to Life
in Modern Setting

Also see Bob's review of A Laughing Matter

Romeo and Juliet
Jordan Coughtry as Romeo and Rebecca Brooksher
If the prospect of sitting through another Romeo and Juliet is not on your list of things to do, rest assured that I certainly understand. It is not that there is any reason to question the beauty and grace of the play. Lack of anticipation might result less from the fact that this very familiar tale of woe has been produced so frequently than from the insufficient quality of respectably dull productions. Well, just forget about all that and run, do not walk, to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey to see its startlingly alive and re-energized "modern dress" Romeo and Juliet.

Although no time and place is listed in the program, and there are no noticeable additions to the text, director David Kennedy places us smack down into a milieu of later 20th century organized crime at that point where Coppola's The Godfather and Scorsese's GoodFellas meet. It is just the place you will want to be.

The essential element for a successful transposition of any Shakespearean play is that the values and behaviors in the new setting be in synch with those in the play's original setting. The hot headed violence, revengeful murders, distorted concepts of honor, and loyalty to "family" of the world of La Costa Nostra make it a perfect setting for Romeo and Juliet.

The production is so pleasantly amusing in its pre-intermission segment that it would seem that the tragic later stages of the play might not play well in tandem with them. However, the transition to tragedy is smooth, and the robust, modern approach works throughout. While this approach does not produce tears, it certainly restores a most welcome vitality to the "tedious tale" of doomed teenage lovers.

Each member of the artistic team has contributed to the successful implementation of Kennedy's spot-on concept. Throughout, the performances are vibrant and forceful. Shakespeare's words ring out clearly and naturally, even when spoken with the rhythms and attitudes that have long marked portrayals of crime families. This tone is set in exacting and impressive detail by Bill Christ in the role of Capulet, Juliet's father. From the manner in which he carries himself—shrugging his shoulders as he moves about with a deliberate, powerful gait—to his forceful, yet matter of fact, line readings, Christ's Capulet is a man confident of his status as well as of his authority in his household. This is a man who will insist that his children emulate his standard of proper and polite social behavior, but then not hesitate to murder his rivals. As his wife and Juliet's mother, Rebecca Brooksher is clearly striving to present herself as a fine and proper lady, an image contradicted by the bad taste on display all about her. Jodie Lynne McClintock is most entertaining in a crowd pleasing, broadly comic, appropriate-to-this-setting interpretation of Juliet's nurse.

Romeo and Juliet
Tristan Colton and Shawn Fagan
Jordan Coughtry is a very sweet and sweet-faced Romeo. He is not in any way like the rest of his family. Enthusiastically and unselfconsciously, Coughtry plunges ahead with a blithe unawareness of the sordid world around him that suggests that he is the Montague who would go to college and escape the family business. On the other hand, Rebecca Brooksher gives us a very unusual, and unusually effective, take on Juliet. Unlike the others, Juliet dresses in excellent taste; she is a picture of loveliness. However, Brooksher's strong, even harsh line readings display a willful and calculating state of mind which is anything but sweet. I could swear that this attitude is reflected within the text. How could that be? I can't recall noticing it before. Check it out. The main thing is that her interpretation is riveting and effective. While, at times, her demeanor seems too mature for Juliet, in a modern day setting, our lovers would likely be a few years older than originally conceived.

As Romeo's hot blooded friend Mercutio, Shawn Fagan performs with forcefulness and wild abandon, without sacrificing the clarity of his line readings. His Mercutio is flamboyantly gay. Would this conduct be acceptable to the Montague crime family? No, it would not. Romeo's friendship with the gay Mercutio could be seen as a further sign of his being clueless. In any event, in this production, a gay Mercutio is a distraction more than anything else. Chris Landis is a particularly strong presence as Benvolio, Romeo's cousin and friend. Tristan Colton (Tybalt), David Manis (Friar Lawrence) and Jon Barker (Paris) lend strong support. There are no weak links among the 18 member cast.

Then there are Jennifer Moeller's outstanding costumes. The favorite colors of Lady Capulet for clothing, furniture and wallpaper are red and black. The array of colors (prominently including pastels) worn by the younger, untamed generation of wise guys include, to the best of my recollection, chartreuse, bright reds, dark reds, purple, blue violet, tan, brown and black. Juliet is lovely in a pale yellow dress and, later, in a white one. The wigs and hair design are another important element in creating this new milieu for Romeo.

Other big pluses are the sound design by Greg Hennigan and the choreography by Cheryl Clark-Hopkins. The sound design includes big band swing and disco music for the Capulet ball and its lively, exuberant dances. There is also techno music for scene transitions which would be at home in a large scale espionage film. The overall sound design provides clear, crisp, and natural sounding speech.

Tobin Ost's striking set is nicely enhanced by Sara Sidman's rich lighting. The large stage platform (blue tiles edged by white ones) is open and airy. Beyond it to the sides and rear are all white stage walls. A purple drop hangs suspended in front of the upper half of the rear stage wall. It descends to the lower half of the stage to become Juliet's tomb late in the play. A substantial number of scenic elements and properties are introduced as needed to represent various locations. They are so effectively designed and employed that the audience never feels that they are watching a unit set. Sidman's lighting is especially outstanding in showing us two silhouetted views of Juliet's very contemporary appearing funeral.

This Romeo and Juliet is the most successful transposition of Shakespeare that I have seen since this theatre's 1994 Merry Wives of Windsor. That production was hilariously set in a resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains in the 1950s. Thus, the highest praise is due to director David Kennedy both for his concept for Romeo and Juliet and for his having been able to realize it so successfully. It is a rare and special treat that no one will want to miss<./p>

Romeo and Juliet continues performances (Tuesday-Wednesday 7:30 p.m./ Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m./ Sunday 7 p.m.) through November 16, 2008 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org. (No perfs. –Sun. 11/16 at 7 pm / Tues. & Wed. in Nov.)

Cast
The Prince of Verona...................................Mark Farr
Mercutio, friend to Romeo.....................Shawn Fagan
Paris, a young nobleman..............................Jon Barker
Page to Paris...............................................Todd Quick
Montague.................................Bernard Burak Sheredy
Lady Montague, his wife...........................Robyn Berg
Romeo, Montague's son.....................Jordan Coughtry
Benvolio, Romeo's cousin………………Chris Landis
Abram, Montague household..................Dan Lendzian
Balthasar, servant to Romeo…………….Sean Hudock
Capulet..........................................................Bill Christ
Lady Capulet., his wife.............Judith Lightfoot Clarke
Juliet, Capulet's daughter................Rebecca Brooksher
Tybalt, Lady Capulet's nephew..............Tristan Colton
Nurse, to Juliet........................Jodie Lynne McClintock
Peter, attending on Nurse………………....Todd Quick
Sampson, of the Capulet household.............Nick Farco
Gregory, of the Capulet household.............Tim Nicolai
Fri Laurence, Franciscan...........................David Manis
Fr John, Franciscan.....................................Tim Nicolai
Apothecary................................Bernard Burak Sheredy
Watchmen..... .Nick Farco, Dan Lendzian, Tim Nicolai


Photos: © Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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