by Hedy Weiss
September 23, 2010
The battle lines are set from the start in the thunderously physical, youthfully energetic production of Romeo and Juliet devised for Chicago Shakespeare Theater by Australian director Gale Edwards.
Comparisons with West Side Story are inevitable here. But an intriguingly timeless, neatly anachronistic quality prevails, too, as set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge easily mixes distressed Italianate architecture with the hip decay that might be found in an old bank in contemporary Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Edwards similarly has encouraged many of her young actors, who play the feuding Montagues and Capulets, to give the play's Elizabethan language a rousing streetwise spin, helping the poetry to fall in sync with our 21st century psyches.
Even the fearsome, wildly inventive swordplay possesses a high-speed modern drive. Fight director Rick Sordelet's brilliantly choreographed violence—executed with stunning technique and astonishing daring by the actors in color-coded red and turquoise shirts—is the most thrilling you might ever witness on a live stage.
As for the young lovers, they are well-matched and squeaky clean in an almost Midwestern way. And there is a perfectly believable chemistry between the boyish, lovesick Romeo (Jeff Lillico, whose innate sweetness flips into scary ferocity at a crucial moment) and his instant flame, the strong-willed, not-quite-14-year-old Juliet (a fresh-faced, consistently natural Joy Farmer-Clary). Adorable in their first hungry adolescent kisses, they are a bit less effective in their love-death scenes, yet always real.
It is the warring young men of each family who often steal the show, with Ariel Shafir in a true star turn as a charismatic, playfully pansexual, supremely provocative Mercutio; Steve Haggard as a winningly sensitive and devoted Benvolio, also a friend to Romeo, and Zach Appelman as Tybalt, a macho, pugilistic Capulet.
As for Ora Jones, she is sublime as the fast-talking, mood-shifting, ever galvanic Nurse, decked out in designer Ana Kuzmanic's big red gown. Her work never fails to illuminate the stage.
David Lively is splendid as the poison-supplying Friar Laurence, at home amid a beautifully sinister table of herbs in glass jars.
Kenn E. Head is masterful as both a commanding Prince of Verona and seductive drug dealer. And John Judd and Judy Blue capture the tensely married Capulets in all their stiff-necked resolve as out-of-touch parents in a city where peace comes much too late.
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