What's old is new - 'Romeo and Juliet' merits yet another revival

"Romeo and Juliet" is probably the most frequently performed of any Shakespearean play. One can't avoid it. It's on stages from high schools to Broadway. It reappears as a movie every few years, and so does the musical adaptation "West Side Story." So why, of all Shakespeare's plays, should this one be presented again in Seattle? One plausible reason is to offer fresh insights or staging. Seattle Shakespeare Company does indeed offer us a creatively staged version.

You know from the moment the prologue begins that this production is going to be a little different. There, from the back of the stage, the narrator looks out over the cast members, each of whom is posed as if this were the final scene of the play. Front and center is the bier on which lie the dead bodies of Romeo and Juliet. OK, no happy ending here. It's a refreshing way to start.

The setting is contemporary. The city of Verona has been desecrated by feuds that breed violence and hatred. Graffiti mars buildings. Gangs of thugs hang out. Among them are Romeo's buddies, who favor the House of Montague. Their despised rivals are a group that represents Juliet's family, the House of Capulet. This could be any large, contemporary urban center.

In a burst of bravado, Romeo and his buddies crash a gala given by Lord Capulet. It's a happening party. There's a rock band, some dirty dancing and revelry all around. It's a boisterous bash, and Romeo's central to the action. But then, amidst the noise and festivities, the star-crossed lovers meet. It's love at first sight, but as we already know, it won't be moonlight and roses for these two.

The most famous scene in the play is the balcony scene, with lines that have become clich├ęs from overuse. The director of this production has made it all new. There's no balcony. The lovers are separated, but not by 10 feet straight up. They are so close to each other that they can touch hands, yet they are absolutely apart. And it is this tantalizing physical separation that gives those hackneyed words all the power they originally possessed. It's wonderful stagecraft.

Not everything is done so well. It seems somewhat incongruous to have swordfights in a modern setting. Picture the Crips dealing with their rivals with cries of "En garde!" It doesn't work. Switchblades and guns seem a better fit.

Another feature that didn't work for me was the final moment. Since the play began with what Shakespeare intended as the last scene, a new ending was needed. What we are given is Romeo and Juliet rising from their grave, then kissing. The passion shown earlier in the play seemed sullied by this greeting-card final gesture.

Too bad, because Dana Powers Acheson creates a Juliet who's so overcome with desire that the force of it reverberates throughout the theater. She is a bundle of sexual energy. As she awaits Romeo's visit to her bedroom, every muscle of her body seems to be wound like a spring ready to burst free.

Acheson's range of emotions is staggering. Her anguish when Romeo is banished, and then later when her father decrees that she will marry Paris, is heartwrenching. At other moments she's a coltish little girl, playful with her nurse, playful with her father.

Lathrop Walker as Romeo is strongest in his scenes with Juliet. His performance in the "balcony" scene is as powerful as hers. He doesn't achieve that level of intensity in other settings.

Mark Chamberlin as Lord Capulet is a standout in the cast. Whether he is tender or raging, an ebullient host or an angry husband, he's got the character down. Chamberlin's also particularly masterful with the flow of Shakespeare's language. Hans Altwies, who plays Mercutio, and Erica Bradshaw, the nurse, are also very good.

Not all the acting comes up to that standard. A number of scenes degenerated into shouting matches. So much noise and screeching made it hard if not impossible to hear all the lines.

Yet despite its flaws, director John Langs has provided a refreshing production. Even those who cringe at the thought of still one more "Romeo and Juliet" will find something to like in this one.[[In-content Ad]]