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Bard's Pair as Dublin Duo

[whitespace] Romeo and Juliet
David Allen

Of Arms and the Lovers: Travis Engle and Jessica Chastain play Shakespeare's most famous couple.

TheatreWorks updates 'Romeo and Juliet' to strife-torn Ireland

By Heather Zimmerman

OFTEN, IT SEEMS that updated/relocated productions of William Shakespeare's works offer little more than an experiment with accents and costumes. Happily, TheatreWorks' version of Romeo and Juliet proves to be an unusually refreshing update that actually further informs the play and adds a complex dimension to its central conflict.

Set in modern times in Northern Ireland, TheatreWorks' Romeo and Juliet frames the tale in a struggle that is older than the play itself. Here, just outside Belfast, the feuding Capulets and Montagues are bitterly opposed Catholics and Protestants.

Despite the spiritual issues at the core of the animosity between the two families--or perhaps because of them--this is a down-to-earth Romeo and Juliet. Rather than staging it as the traditional epic romance, director Robert Kelley tells the well-worn story as an everyman's tragedy, infusing it with a warmth and a humanity that restores the impact of the familiar ending and reinforces the tragedy with all the implications of Ireland's Catholic-Protestant conflict.

To that end, Kelley seamlessly incorporates Irish culture into the production, underscoring scenes with live music from the Irish folk group Four Shillings Short and adding step dancers to the Capulets' party scene.

But more than anything, it's the appealing, intense performances of Travis Engle and Jessica Chastain as Romeo and Juliet that lend such a sense of universality to this production. Engle and Chastain, themselves 17 and 21, portray the famous couple as what they really were--love-struck teenagers. At the same time, however, they don't allow Romeo and Juliet's love to be merely written off as youthful whim. Sprightly with adolescent giggles and sighs, their balcony scene is a refreshingly charming romp. The production has an air of youthful exuberance, helped along with some earthy humor by Peter J. Macon as Romeo's devilish friend, Mercutio, and Linda Hoy as Juliet's nurse.

Visually, too, set designer Bruce McLeod has created an atmosphere of forboding with a quaint Irish village of rolling green hills, row houses and cobblestones that would be welcoming were it not edged with bombed-out buildings and peppered with political graffiti. And the village is neatly divided--orange-hued Protestant houses to one side and green Catholic houses to the other--by a towering, double-sided church. McLeod lends another level of meaning to "two households, both alike in dignity" with this centerpiece, the church's dual facades, one Protestant and one Catholic. This split structure looms prophetically over most scenes, an omnipresent reminder of the issues that cleave the Montagues and the Capulets.

The current tenuous peace agreement in Ireland adds additional urgency to this Romeo and Juliet, particularly to the strained Capulet-Montague truce forged by the lovers' deaths. The scene retains its sense of hope that a resolution carved out by such terrible circumstances will hold, but also raises the sad possibility that the young lovers' deaths may end up being futile in the midst of a fight that is far bigger than two powerful families, let alone two children.

Romeo and Juliet plays Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 8pm, Sunday (May 3) at 2pm at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$31. 650/903-6000.

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From the April 30-May 6, 1998 issue of Metro.

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