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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Love Among the Ruins

By Michelle Pett

Also see Elizabeth's review of Far Away

(clockwise from top left) Stephen Pelinski, Lee Mark Nelson, Michelle O'Neill and Christine Marie Brown
Americans don't much care for death. Sure, we know the Grim Reaper is gunning for us, but we prefer to think he'll steal us from our sleep rather than catch us in mid-sentence at our desk. Untimely, death has become part of our collective unconscious since 9/11. Its specter also hangs over the world in which Shakespeare set his tragic love story, Romeo & Juliet. The Guthrie Theater's production of this play brilliantly evokes the sense of devastation, destruction and dread that's become our universal screensaver over the last few years; it also reminds us that passionate love can transform this bitter landscape into one of reconciliation and renewal.

Romeo & Juliet is the story of two (very) young lovers caught on opposite sides of a family feud that's destroying their city, Verona. Romeo, the scion of the Montague family, is a romantic fella, in love with love. He pals around with a gang of young men that includes Mercutio, a kinsman to the Prince of Verona. Juliet is the only child of the Capulets; she's certain to marry County Paris, another kinsman to the Prince. Romeo and his buddies sneak into a Capulet party where Romeo meets, woos and falls in love with Juliet. She returns his love in the immortal balcony scene. What follows, in short, is: a secret marriage, a duel, a death, another duel, another death, a banishment, a (secret) wedding night, a passionate parting, an abhorrent marriage proposal, a tantrum, an ultimatum, a (secret) suicide threat, a sleeping potion, a fake death, an undelivered letter, much lamentation, three real deaths and the end of civil war in Verona.

Time is of the essence in Romeo & Juliet, and we're aware of it immediately in director Ethan McSweeny's staging of the play: Chorus (Stephen Yoakam) starts a stop watch at the end of his prologue; its ominous ticking dogs the remainder of the production. One of the great ironies of the play is the fact that a little more time would've done wonders for the protagonist's decision-making process. With a few more years under their belts, they may not have been so resolute in their desire to destroy themselves. The impetuousness of youth is in mortal combat with the moderation of age. Patch Darragh (Romeo) and Christine Marie Brown (Juliet) capture this conflict brilliantly. They begin the play as rosy-cheeked, naïve children, and end it as decisive young-adults. Their earlier indecision and struggle makes their suicides heartrending. Karl Kenzler's Mercutio, reeling from euphoria to self-loathing, is begging for his own destruction. Stephen Pelinski's Capulet, caught in the cross-hairs of impending middle-age, roars like a silver-backed gorilla to keep his rivals at bay. Richard Iglewski's Friar Lawrence is a beatific presence, while Isabell Monk O'Connor's sing-song voice propels her comic turn as the Nurse.

McSweeny's ambitious and intelligent production moves seamlessly between low comedy and high tragedy. He starts the show with the houselights still up, and uses the aisles as actor space in order to blur the distance between players and audience. Actors use American accents, but that doesn't mean they sacrifice the play's poetry. Instead, McSweeny creates stage images that illuminate Shakespeare's language and open up the text for a contemporary audience.

Set and costume designer Mark Wendland's visual vocabulary for the show is incredible. The set looks like Ground Zero: a stage of wooden planking surrounded by "ashes"; three stories of metal scaffolding and plastic sheeting extending backstage; a gothic cathedral-like tower becomes the balcony, marriage bed and tomb; old theater seats live upstage and amongst the ashes. Neutral-colored costumes, referencing styles from World War I through the 1950s, symbolize the generational divide. It's Old Navy versus Banana Republic; cargo capri's versus linen suits.

Lighting Designer Jane Cox's use of work lights, flash lights and neon lighting heightens the ominous qualities of the set design. Composer/Sound Designer Michael Roth's many fine touches include gregorian chants, cathedral bells and some killer techno-pop dance music.

We know that fate is inexorable, but in Romeo & Juliet we hope that things will turn out differently this time. Maybe Tybalt's and Mercutio's duel will remain comic, or at least Mercutio will live. Maybe Juliet and Friar Lawrence will avoid the sleeping potion idea, or at least Romeo will receive Friar Lawrence's letter. We hope the poison won't work. We hope the dagger isn't sharp. We hope. We hope. Maybe that's the beauty of passion, at least the secular-humanist variety; in the face of untimely death, hope gives us a taste of redemption.

Romeo & Juliet March 5 - April 11, 2004. Tuesday - Sunday evenings; performance times vary. Call the box office for schedule. Tickets $13 - $48, depending on performance. Guthrie Theater, 725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Call 612-377-2224 or 877-44-STAGE. Online at

Photo: © Michal Daniel, 2004

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Elizabeth Weir

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