Romeo and Juliet

To take one of the most famous plays in the world and edit the text and adapt its staging to a different time and place takes both insight and chutzpah, which director Joel Fink shows in varying measure in the 2004 Colorado Shakespeare Festival's opening production of Romeo and Juliet.

A sparse, massive stage is set with hints of pre-World War I Europe—a massive grandfather clock, surrounded by a circular bench at its base, stands singularly in watch over the fate of the original "star-crossed lovers"; an early Victrola floats above, providing the "chorus," a disembodied narration in the tone of a scratchy 78 rpm recording—all surrounded by grillwork hung on the lighting scaffold, set off by a high balcony at the upper reaches of the metal-frame proscenium at stage-right.

Photo of Michael Kevin (Capulet) and Katrina Kuntz (Juliet)
Michael Kevin (Capulet)
and Katrina Kuntz (Juliet)
Into this world, Fink carefully places a lean selection of only the most crucial characters who quickly drive the central dramatic forces forward. Barely an hour into the story we break for intermission, having gone from the introduction of the feud between the Montagues and Capulets to the Prince's banishment of Romeo for his part in the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt; barely an hour later, the authoritative voice of the invisible playwright is summing up the tragedy.

The effect of this accelerated pace on the first half of the production is breathtaking, highlighted by one of the most original balcony scenes ever staged. Romeo enters the Capulet's courtyard from a scaffold wall just beyond the trees that liberally flank the perimeter of the outdoor amphitheatre. Over one hundred feet away, Juliet mounts the upper reaches of her father's castle, slowly approaching her balcony.

Photo of Stephen Louis Grush (Romeo) and Katrina Kuntz (Juliet)
Stephen Louis Grush (Romeo)
and Katrina Kuntz (Juliet)
While we listen to some of the finest romantic poetry ever written in the English language, the sexual tension and transcendental emotions are lifted by the spotlighted isolation of the lovers, achieving an epic intimacy that is nothing short of a revelation.

Katrina Kuntz deftly navigates through the challenging waters of portraying the 14 year-old Juliet, a girl giddy with puberty, whose elevated speech belies her years. In experienced anticipation, we watch as Kuntz transparently metamorphoses the teenager's familial-imposed formality, dissolving her culture's expectation of arranged marriage in the throes of infatuation from love at first sight.

Stephen Louis Grush is bright and winsome, quick of mind and light afoot, as the equally young, but more street-seasoned Romeo. He brings forth compassion when stepping in-between Mercutio and Tybalt, then bravado when forced to fight to defend his honor. His romancing of Juliet is heartfelt.

Photo of Ethelyn Friend (Nurse) and Katrina Kuntz (Juliet)
Ethelyn Friend (Nurse)
and Katrina Kuntz (Juliet)
The other principal characters are also well drawn: Brian Caplan captures the Úlan of Mercutio, strutting and prancing to his heart's delight, egging on friend and foe alike; Ethelyn Friend glistens as the multifaceted nurse, emanating in turn a strict disciplinarian, comic drunk, and lusty middle-aged maid; and Scott Stangland discovers a pleasing impetuousness as the empathetic, scheming Friar Laurence.

At times, however, the bare-bones of Fink's scenery-starved, character-reduced script begin to show through the well-fed performances and focused, accelerated action. After their secretive marriage, Romeo and Juliet are found, not on a soft bed a few steps from the balcony, but standing center stage, half-draped in their bedding, their decent to the hard floor for another round of pleasure working against what should be the tenderest of the moments.

Later, when Juliet is presumed dead by her family and taken to the family crypt, stagehands make their only appearance, laying the ever-present, monolithic clock on its side, (a shameless metaphor at best), providing an awkward bier for the heroine—around which Romeo must navigate in order to have his final tender moments with the love of his life.

Then we are distressed to find the attempts by Friar Laurence to contact Romeo and warn him that Juliet's lifeless state is only temporary are completely edited from the script, confounding us with an illogical plan. By this we are also simultaneously robbed of the dramatic tension that this ploy builds in the script, and left with the feeling that we have gotten to the climax too soon, without Fate having exhibited its fickle cruelty.

And finally, but most significantly, the entire last scene, in which the Prince persuades the Montagues and Capulets to reconcile their differences, is also cut, further abridging our emotional journey and trunkating the playwright's intent to use this tragedy as a learning experience—one in which he clearly exhibits the most spiritual means of healing grief, rather than the pessimistic note sounded here.

One can debate whether these errors on the side of brevity are preferable to testing the impatience of modern audiences with the leisure of Elizabethan storytelling, but the depth of the catharsis for those familiar with the details of the story is significantly diminished by these choices. Otherwise, the strengths of this production—its directness, well-crafted performances, exemplary use of the stage, and generally clear and well-projected elocution would make for an noteworthy evening at the feet of an immortal poet and dramatist.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Romeo and Juliet runs through August 13th in repertory with Antony and Cleopatra and The Comedy of Errors. 303-492-0554.

Bob Bows


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