Kansas City Repertory Theater gives us a very pretty production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Director Eric Rosen puts lots of easy-on-the-eyes young people onstage, and his design team frames the play with visually striking sets, expensive-looking costumes and dynamic lighting that captures a range of moods. In tackling his first Shakespearean play, Rosen chose the Bard’s timeless “tale of woe” about the iconic young lovers from warring families in Verona. This co-production with the UMKC Theatre Department offers a mix of excellent and less than excellent performances as well as quirky touches that are sometimes effective, sometimes not.
The power of Shakespeare’s plays comes from the language, and at times the inherent poetic beauty and vivid imagery of his words weren’t communicated to the audience with enough eloquence. In the early going of the opening-night performance, much of the dialogue sounded rushed and bit mechanical. As the show progressed, however, the actors found the right rhythms and gave the lines room to breathe. Among the standout performances is Courtney Salvage’s memorable take on Juliet. She exhibits a keen sense of comic timing at times — particularly in the balcony scene — but also delivers a deeply felt sense of intoxication, desperation and, ultimately, tragic loss. Her Romeo, Jamie Dufault, is a charismatic presence but doesn’t communicate the character’s ping-pong emotional journey clearly enough. At moments he finds the humor in a young man’s first experience with overwhelming infatuation, but we don’t see the rage and sorrow the role requires.
Key supporting performances are impressive: David Fritts as Lord Montague is quietly efficient. David Castellani as Lord Capulet and Cheryl Weaver as Lady Capulet find palpable levels of malevolence.
Castellani is particularly successful communicating the meaning of Shakespeare’s words, and his transformation into an abusive father is appropriately disturbing. Weaver gives us a complex portrait in a handful of appearances.
Zachary Andrews makes a visually handsome impression as the smooth-talking Mercutio. Merle Moores brings her prodigious skills to a vivid performance as Nurse. As Friar Lawrence, Theodore Swetz finds new levels in a role he has played before. Michael Pauley, as the feud-crazed Tybalt, is fun to watch, and Rusty Sneary gives us a solid, no-nonsense performance as Benvolio. Among the smaller roles, Edwin Brown III scores with a comic appearance as a bumbling Capulet servant and later as a serious-minded apothecary. As Escalus, Prince of Verona, Antonio Glass is an imposing physical presence but doesn’t project the resolute authority the role demands. In the utilitarian role of Paris, Vincent Wagner is effective.
The sword fights are, as advertised, riveting. Fight director John Wilson has staged duels that avoid much of the artificiality and excessive vocalizing we’ve all seen too often. Andrews, Pauley and Dufault perform them with grace, agility and convincing malice. Jack Magaw’s set is a sumptuous-looking series of arches that can be moved according to the needs of each scene. The costumes by Lindsay W. Davis and Lauren Gaston are effective throughout and spectacular in the Capulet party sequence.
Victor En Yu Tan’s lighting scheme is nuanced. Composer Andre Pluess underscores the show evocatively, and choreographer Chase Brock does a nice job with the Capulet ballroom dancers.
Rosen opens the show with an unnecessary meta-theatrical conceit. With the house lights still on, we hear a stage manager calling actors to the stage for fight rehearsals. They mill around, chat inaudibly and run through the duels we’ll see later. The show proper begins when Swetz, in modern dress, walks down the aisle and standing in front of the stage speaks the introductory speech by the chorus while holding a copy of the script under one arm. It’s all mildly interesting but adds little to the production.
“Romeo and Juliet” runs through Feb. 9 at the Spencer Theatre at the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry St. For more information, call 816-235-2700 or go to KCRep.org