Theater review: Riveting, physical, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ lights up Edgerton Park, New Haven

R&J Promo 5
R&J Promo 5

Pressed to characterize Elm Shakespeare’s production of “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” in a word, “passionate” leaps to mind. No, not good enough: PASSIONATE — caps not optional.

It goes without saying that “Romeo and Juliet,” which continues in Elm Shakespeare’s free, outdoor production through Sunday at Edgerton Park in New Haven, is among Shakespeare’s plays most palpably fueled by fervor. High-octane love, hatred, loyalty, revenge and despair motivate its characters, young and mature, naïve and learned.

Yet it’s the passion of this production that is most notable, leading with Raphael Massie’s heartfelt direction and Ted Hewlett’s no-holds-barred stage combat. The production pulsates with unbridled hormones, where tempers fly, libidos rage and action precedes deliberation.

The performance starts before Shakespeare’s text, as actors solemnly enter a few at a time, underscored by contemplative, wordless music. Once all are in place, James Andreassi, who plays the well-intentioned Friar Lawrence, delivers the prologue, essentially telling the audience exactly what tragic folly lies ahead.

Before long, the younger generation of the Capulet and Montague clans taunt, strut and flex their way into a brawl, only to pause when the Prince of Verona (a commanding Tamika Pettway) admonishes all that the price of any such misbehavior is pain of death.

Soon enough after the sworn enemies return to their respective houses, presumably for cold showers, Romeo (Steven Lee Johnson) enters, wearing his callow heart on his sleeve since the unseen Rosaline, his latest Big Moment, won’t give him the time o’ day. His kinsman, Benvolio (Avery Bargar), tips off his younger cousin that Rosaline will soon attend a party where Romeo can pitch the woo once again.

Well, you know what happens. Romeo sees Juliet (Courtney Jamison) at the soirée and what’s-her-name is henceforth deleted from his contacts. The good news is that Juliet reciprocates Romeo’s amorous vibe. The bad news is that she’s one of them, the dreaded Capulets. Had Romeo simply stayed home and wallowed in Neil Young ballads on his hi-fi, the streets of Verona would’ve been spared an overflow of bloodshed.

Still, Verona’s loss is our gain. And while this story is ancient, all of the ensuing action seems fresh, spontaneous and by chance. Whether the characters sing, dance, love, brawl or grieve, the actors deny none of the dramatic potential packed in the script. The balcony scene, for instance, exudes excitement and sensuality. Not because the actors add any R-rated physicality, but because Johnson and Jamison — especially Jamison — radiate more desire for each other than either can humanly fetter. It’s 8-5 odds that theatergoers who have come within miles of an unopened copy of this play will understand exactly what these young, anxious teens want, regardless of how Elizabethan their speech. In fact, so clear is the action that should the actors speak Martian, audiences would get it.

Fortunately, they speak the Bard’s words trippingly from their proverbial tongues, just as Hamlet instructs his players. To a person, every cast member understands precisely what he or she says, as if bantering with each other at a cast party.

Everyone in the cast deserves praise, beginning with Claire Warden’s Tybalt. Yes, Massie has cast a female as the most bilious, testosterone-overloaded character, and she earns it. Think Sonny Corleone well-versed in swordplay. When she and Mercutio (a stellar and physically formidable James Udom) square off to fight to the finish, Warden is riveting. And since his name came up, Udom also commands our full attention, respect and admiration as he handles both verse and weaponry with equal aplomb and dexterity. Armed with Hewlett’s inspired, convincing fight choreography, these two warriors prove the best bout since Frazier-Ali in 1971.

Gracy Brown’s Nurse is a beautifully earthy, saucy confidante for young Juliet. She mines her moments of operatic emotions for all they’re worthwhile denying none of her character’s subtext or nuance.

Brown’s moxie appears to spill over to her charge, as Jamison’s Juliet is nine volts squeezed into a double-A battery. Yet she is remarkably believable as the virginal teen. Her desire never eradicates her youth and earnestness.

Mark Sage Hamilton’s Lord Capulet, Barger’s Benvolio and Pettway’s Escalus, Prince of Verona, also render masterful performances without any sign of strain.

While language reigns supreme in Shakespearean productions, special mention of the production elements make a beeline for Elizabeth Bolster’s ingenious set design, consisting of three acting levels and a passerelle jutting out in front of the stage that Massie uses aptly.

Jamie Burnett’s lighting design splendidly complements Herin Kaputkin’s clever yet subtle costume design where the older generation and non-combatants wear classical garb and the younger crowd dons contemporary tough-guy clothes. Michael Vincent Skinner’s sound design is very au courant and supports the highly spirited tenor of the production.

Anyone yet passingly aware of the divided, partisan nature of our nation will no doubt recognize the timeliness of “Romeo and Juliet.” They will just as certainly appreciate how immediate Elm Shakespeare’s production feels. Happily, the company trusts the script as confidently as it trusts its instincts on how to deliver it so honestly and sincerely.

E. Kyle Minor writes about theater for the Register.