Photo: PETER GOLDBERG
HANDS ON: Ruggiero and Rossini.
Shakespeare didn’t slow dance when he wrote Romeo and Juliet — he went for the essence of impetuous young love like a brisk waltz. With a driving urgency and numerous compelling performances, there’s a sometimes brilliant, sometimes infuriating production at the Gamm (through November 15) that comes through by the end, gripping us in the thrall of the star-crossed lovers.
Directed by Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre’s artistic director Anthony Estrella, the familiar tragedy begins and ends with fresh touches. (Sorry, but his creative license expired before he could have Friar Laurence’s tip-off letter to Romeo arrive in time to prevent their deaths.) The opening image is of two bare-chested men, under dramatic lighting. They are grappling in serious combat, breaking the peace in fair Verona, prompting the furious Prince (Sam Babbitt) to decree death for further disruptions.
The seriousness of the opening situation is established in two ways: First by the contrast of Babbitt as a calm but stern narrator introducing the story while the men are locked in freeze-frame timelessness, then by the visceral immediacy of a flesh-on-flesh fight, not the dismissible familiarity of swordplay. (Similarly, a later fight is with daggers, up close and personal instead of civilized steps away.)
Romeo and Juliet is a cavalcade of conflicts — family against family, civil order against families, father and daughter against each other, and so on — contrasting with the beatific calm of wholehearted love.
Wholehearted but superficial. At first. Romeo (Aaron Rossini) epitomizes the callow, sap-rising youthfulness that easily mistakes brimming hormones for something more meaningful. When we meet Romeo, he is smitten by the beauty of the never-seen Rosalind and annoyed by her quibbling about chastity. He’s just another horny boy. So his love at first sight when he sees Juliet (Amanda Ruggiero) at a masked ball could be dismissed as mere infatuation with his next Rosalind.
But that can’t happen if we are to be pulled into their romance. That’s the first weakness in this production. In the first half, Rossini’s Romeo remains a dull, halfhearted romantic, not even moved by Mercutio’s death. He has none of the commitment to what he feels that Marc Dante Mancini’s Benvolio, his friend, shows in earnest kindness. (Benvolio is the one who tries to break up that fight at the beginning.) Romeo has to be in love with love, but here he is merely in love with himself, in the form of pretty projections. By the end, Rossini is absorbed in Romeo’s obsession, but by then a doormat would have fallen in love with Juliet.
Even more unforgivably, this Romeo is allowed to be a murderous coward in his reluctant knife fight with Tybalt, pretending to be out of the action and then slashing his throat with a secreted weapon. We would hiss off stage any other character who pulled such a lethal version of a sucker punch.
In contrast, Ruggiero’s spirited Juliet is a wonder to behold, one of the best I recall seeing. She reminds us that Juliet has an armory of emotions to protect herself and just as many to express herself, ranging from shattering disappointment to giddy joy.
Several of these actors could get away with doing much less than they come up with. As the Nurse, Shakespeare’s caricature of good-natured talkativeness, Wendy Overly is a peripatetic bustle of overweening attention to her charge, Juliet. Having a broader spectrum of emotional responses to tackle, Tom Gleadow is especially fascinating to watch as Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet. His eventual rage at her for refusing to marry as he instructs is bone-chilling, all the more so since it’s preceded by his depicting the heartiest, most caring father you can imagine. Others are also impressive. Kidd’s Tybalt has a feral intensity, well-matched by a newcomer to Gamm, Kelby T. Atkin as his rival, Mercutio. As crucial to the tale, Jim O’Brien gives the role of Friar Laurence emotional heft.
There certainly is more to appreciate than to question in this Romeo and Juliet. Yes, there still are those dismaying suicides at the end, but we do get a surprising moment even there. No, they don’t stop trying at the Gamm until the final curtain comes down.