It seems like it was only yesterday when the curious public flocked to see Baz Luhrmann's modern update of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet at the cineplexes. The over-the-top production values and MTV-style editing delighted the teenyboppers at the malls but left the more staid Bard lovers shrieking cries of a Shakespearean Armageddon. Fortunately, today's New York theater audiences can rest easy with more stable productions like Moonwork Theater Company's current production of Romeo and Juliet.
Instead of employing distracting gimmicks to breathe life into this often-told story, Moonwork's production takes the opposite route: bare stage, no props, and no weapons. The timeless atmosphere brings the piece back to its simple origins, focusing this telling on the overwhelming powers of love and fate. Moonwork's artistic director Gregory Wolfe has great skill as a director, trusting the images he evokes to tell the story in a most straightforward manner.
Wolfe's most exciting artistic choice is the use of a 22-member Greek-style chorus. The Chorus remains on stage throughout the entire play, often harmonizing in their most angelic tones to the moving music by Andrew Sherman. Dressed entirely in white and with little movement, the Chorus casts a watchful, ultimately mournful, eye on the proceedings. Their power brings the audience's point of view on to the stage with the action. It is an effective, original choice. The design team (June Wolfe, costumes; Lowell Pettit, set; Jen Acomb, lights) is also to be commended; the dark, atmospheric tones they bring to the production accentuate the timeless nature of the events.
The major flaws of the production are found in the principal cast. It may have been an exciting idea to cast a man as the Nurse and women as Benvolio and Mercutio, but unfortunately, the idea does not come to life here. Tom Shillue's Nurse remains nothing but a tired caricature, while Anna Cody's Mercutio and Jennifer Carta's Benvolio must resort to hamming it up to evoke the spirits of their characters.
It can also be said that Gregory J. Sherman's Romeo and Monique Vukovic's Juliet do not ignite the slightest spark together. Of course, the audience knows that Romeo and Juliet are supposed to be deeply in love, but here it is only the viewer's familiarity with the story that keeps it going. When they die, emotions are empty and no tears are shed. The rest of the cast does an adequate job, but one wishes that they had all gone deeper into the humanity of their characters rather than settling for all that lies on the outside.
Of course, it is almost entirely impossible to create a powerful production of this play with a cast that is less than effective, but Wolfe saves the day with his innovative storytelling. Sherman's interesting choreography also helps to give this Romeo and Juliet many different colors. Though this may not be the definitive execution of one of the Bard's best known piece, it certainly breaks new ground for theater audiences. It manages to adhere to conventional elements of storytelling while giving them a new and interesting face.