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September 19, 2008

Shakespeare with Genius

Roy Meachum

For its first offering of the new season, the Shakespeare Theatre Company reached for a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. "Romeo and Juliet" always sells tickets especially when produce in the STC's high tone and éclat. To add a dash more frisson, Director David Muse, and his long-time artistic partner Michael Kahn, decided that when casting, this show would follow the Elizabethan pattern.


That's where the genius exploded in view. In Shakespeare's time women were not allowed to tread the boards; the prohibition was not lifted until the Restoration that wrought all sorts of social changes. Nearly 500 years later we have become accustomed to Ophelias and Juliets that never face a razor; their beauty is not marred by protuberant Adam apples.


Mr. Kahn and his assistant artistic director, Mr. Muse, both enhanced the opening show's appeal and reduced the possibility that some might stay away, fearing a flaming gay tromp. It isn't. Quite the contrary, in my 80 years and 43 seasons as a critic, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has come up with a "Romeo and Juliet" that is the very finest I've ever seen. Bravo!


No other version in my ken deploys music and choreography so brilliantly, In addition to the facility of twisting Shakespeare's language into easily understood speech, these performers had to sing and move in a manner that would stimulate audiences' interests in what followed, for which we must praise Choreographer Daniel Pelzig. There is never an awkward moment in the evening. Bravo!


Scott Bradley turned the house's inventive stage into a veritable vault that helps the actors act their roles. The surface and iron rungs, differing openings, the way that Mr. Muse can use the entire stage splendidly testifies to Mr. Bradley's contributions of genius. Lap Chi Chu's lighting design is an integral and major part in the evening's success. Bravo!


And finally we come to the company: on press opening night not a single major character struck a false note in anything said or declaimed on Mr. Bradley's stage. Drew Eshelman's interpretation of Juliet's nurse is overplayed, of course; the same description fits Jeffrey Kuhn's Lady Montague; between the two they keep the action moving right along. No one in the cast felt less than crisply worthy of calling himself an "actor." Bravo!


“Romeo” Finn Wittrock and “Juliet” James Davis are new to the splendid Harman Center for the Arts. You can deeply hope they will be invited back. Mr. Wittrock manages to simulate the deep passion of his character, but something else: he and Director Muse staged wordless moments that communicate very clearly he is a teen-age boy caught in his first real passion. Bravo!


Mr. Davis already has a Hamlet on his resume along with parts that testify to his player's strength, including a handful of Shakespearean characters. He becomes a new and growing woman, sexually attracted to this worthy young man that her family wants to kill. That's how feuds are, folks. His Juliet deftly juggles her new love, her passion and her family, together with hangers-on. As a perfect lady to the manor born, James Davis deserves some recognition stronger and more substantial than words. Brava and Bravo!


This is Shakespeare served with a huge dollop of genius. And that takes more bravos than my critic's trunk has. This one you simply must see.


"Romeo and Juliet" continues into October; it's joined by "The Way of the World" later this month.


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