Review: CTC's minimalist Romeo and Juliet

An amusing tragedy
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  February 23, 2011

Ah, young love. So sweet, so unguarded, so unwise. Parents can caution the younger of their teenagers all they want, but William Shakespeare has undermined their efforts by promoting the blissful aspect in Romeo and Juliet. Yes, it's a tragedy and they die at the end, but that's a minor annoyance next to their joy.

The Contemporary Theater Company is staging the classic at the Towers in Narragansett through March 6.

These actors are skillful, and that's the most important factor in getting us and keeping us enthralled. But there are only four of them. Appreciation of that limitation comes from surprise more than anything else, like admiring a popsicle-stick sculpture. The restriction calls attention to itself, a no-no when you want the audience to get lost in the story.

Our imaginations are aided by this being black-box theater — literally as well as figuratively: cubes are shifted around between scenes to change settings.

It's more than usually helpful to be familiar with the play, especially when actors return as different characters, out of context and not addressed by name, merely wearing a different tunic to signal who they are.

Now and then the cast being minimal is turned to advantage, such as when the Prince of Verona, where this all takes place, is raging that Romeo is to be banished from the city. In silent contrast to that emotional storm, a red scarf and a purple one are slowly folded on opposite sides of the performance space; then slowly, respectfully, the "bodies" of Tybalt and Mercutio are taken away.

Romeo has just killed Tybalt for killing his friend Mercutio in a sword fight. A shocking moment and smart decision — this ensemble production does not credit a director — is having the hot-blooded Romeo savagely and repeatedly stab Tybalt with a knife rather than simply run him through in their sword fight, as is usually presented.

Shawn Fennell's Romeo is a wonderful interpretation, emphasizing the impetuousness of youth that brings with it a spontaneity we can admire. Shakespeare had Romeo initially waxing poetic over the never-seen Rosaline, until he sees Juliet in their mutual love-at-first-sight encounter at a court ball. Fennell gives us a Romeo that meets the playwright's challenge to have him grow up before our eyes in that moment, as he realizes how serious love is. The actor plays potentially large moments small, concentrating our attention.

As Juliet, Amy Lee Connell did her best work in multiple roles after that point in the play, when the girl (she's not quite 14, after all) grew less girlish. Connell came into her own with Juliet's balcony scene monologue — "wherefore art thou, Romeo?"— and afterward. Encouraged by that scene, she began finding nuances, as the others had, in other roles, such as Lady Montague and Mercutio.

Christopher J. Simpson is a hoot as the Nurse, Juliet's gabby nanny, all the more so after he appears as a fire-eyed Tybalt. He doesn't neglect the Nurse's scene-stealing potential, as the ever-antic character can be an entertaining presence even when she's not speaking.

Nevan Michael Richard plays Benvolio, a good-willed friend of Romeo, as well as a deeper-voiced Lord Capulet, the angry father of Juliet, and Peter the Apothecary, who ill-fatedly provides the drug that allows Juliet to feign death at the end. But his Friar Laurence is the best of the bunch, confessor and confidant to Romeo, effective in his sympathy as our stand-in when Romeo is unburdening himself.

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