FOR AT least a half-century, no theater company worth its salt has bothered to produce William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet unless it was prepared to do one of two things. The first option has been to engage in a bit of historical anachronism, in which the late-16th-century play is reproduced as faithfully as possible, except, of course, for the archaic practice of having men play women's roles. The second, more-common approach has been to create something entirely new out of this tragic tale of the world's most famous pair of "star-crossed lovers," whether it's a musical like Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim West Side Story from 1957 or a film like Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet from 1996.
That is the bar, but director Bill Olson has set his sights elsewhere for this new Palo Alto Players version, hoping, as he says in his director's notes, to convince us that it's "possible to root for Romeo and Juliet" in "today's world of cell-phones and PDAs." Many of us were probably already convinced, which is why the decision to excise so many of Shakespeare's most beautiful and informative passages from the play feels so undermining. Sorely missed is the scene after Romeo (Andrew Gruen) kills Tybalt (Paul Jennings) in revenge for the slaughter of Romeo's friend Mercutio (Jeremy Koerner). In that scene, Romeo's cousin Benvolio (Kevin Hsieh) explains to Escalus, the Prince of Verona (Bill C. Jones), what has transpired, and the prince delivers his verdict on the spot: banishment. Robbed of Benvolio's speech and the prince's pronouncement, we only learn of this news secondhand from Friar Lawrence (the director himself) in the second act.
Worse is the deletion of most of the dialogue at the play's end, which leaves this version of the tale without a moral ("All are punished" is the timeless message in the original), let alone any reconciliation between Capulet (Dan Roach) and Montague (Robert Snedegar). As unfortunate edits go, this is a doozy.
On the positive side, there are a number of fine performances. Shannon Warrick is terrific as Juliet's confidant and nurse—when Warrick and Sepideh Moafi, who does a great job as Juliet, share the stage, the play feels in very good hands. Moafi is equally strong in her scenes with Gruen. She plays Juliet as the young girl the character is supposed to be, with the mannerisms and body language of a 14-year-old reeling from her first crush. I especially liked it when she sang and hummed to herself on her balcony, in full operatic throat, as Gruen's Romeo confessed his love for Juliet to the audience—even if Moafi was singing from Carmen.
The other pair that keeps the play on task is Koerner and Hsieh. Koerner's Mercutio is an articulate hothead with more than a couple of screws loose. Hsieh's Benvolio does his best to keep things light, whether it's trying to brighten Romeo's darker moods or playing the drunk, collapsing at one point into Koerner's arms, and then passing out while standing. I was convinced.
ROMEO AND JULIET, a Palo Alto Players production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm through Nov. 22 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $28–$32; (650.329.0891)
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