Romeo and Juliet
Playmakers Repertory Company
Through Oct. 14

“Who set this ancient quarrel new abroach?” Davis McCallum is the man, come to wield his art among the Playmakers, and so to spill fresh light on the gleaming surfaces of old words. Playmakers Repertory Company, with McCallum as guest director, has opened its main stage season in the Paul Green Theatre with Romeo and Juliet, one of the great love stories of all time and certainly Shakespeare’s best-known play.

Or at least people think they know it, and so thinking, may turn away. “Tis but thy name that is my enemy,” a director might say, with Juliet. I must confess, I went expecting to be underwhelmed, as all of the well-funded, high-production value, Equity-actor Shakespeare I’ve seen in recent years has been sadly lacking. These shortcomings are all the more glaring in comparison to the passionate, piercing clarity of street-level groups such as Shakespeare & Originals. Could PRC make R&J worth my time?

Oh yes. McCallum can hardly ignore the love story, but he has fractured the carapace of convention to subtly emphasize the political elementthe longstanding and ever-widening gap between two factionsin a way that resonates with the here and now. He doesn’t belabor them, but we cannot miss the parallels with the gang fights at home or the tragedies of war abroad. He is greatly aided in this by his Mercutio (Justin Adams) and his Tybalt (David McClutchey).

McClutchey plays Tybalt, the privileged punk, in a marvelously smarmy manner. He elicits no sympathy, even in death, which is a shortcoming, but as a foil to Mercutio, he is fine. Mercutio may be the best role in the play, and Adams displays greater intelligence and humor than you often see and an unexpected delicacy. He swaggers cheerfully in his snug red pants; his barbs and challenges could be jokes. These factions play the games of boys who have become men but lack directive purpose. They can pick fights to the death because they are not busy struggling to survive, and a fine fight they do pick, with their glittering rapiers and daggers (the excellent fight staging is by Craig Turner). Adams is charming in the early rowdy wordplay, and moving in his final lines”ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” And when he utters the famous curse, “A plague o’ both your houses!” he could be meaning the Capulets and Montaguesor the Republicans and the Democrats.

But let’s not forget the lovers. Janie Brookshire and Matt Dickson bring vitality to their characters, with a freshness of phrasing and natural, contemporary gestures and actions. Both speak the lines well, and force us to keep in mind how very young Juliet and Romeo are as they make the decisions that jettison them into adulthood and its rapid trajectory toward death. They are very pretty together but need a little more heat between them. The attraction is clear, but the propulsive sexual fire does not flame up between them.

The exception to this is in Act III, Scenes 2 and 3, for which McCallum has devised a brilliant staging: a theatrical version of a cinematic split screen. Juliet and her nurse (Kathryn Hunter-Williams, stealing several scenes) and Romeo and Friar Laurence (Ray Dooley, in fine form) occupy the same stage space, but not the same play space. Their scenes are intercut, and all the gorgeous grieving language of each builds on the other as they alternate, the words coming closer and closer until they culminate with a duet on “banished.” It was very beautiful.

McCallum’s staging throughout is inventive, making good use of the theater’s thrust stage and its surrounding spaces. Scott Bradley’s set works well with minimal changes for all the scenes, and Olivera Gajic’s costumes cleverly bridge the centuries. The whole is greatly enriched by Ryan Rumery’s fine incidental music.

Altogether, this production is such a strong re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet that I’m inclined to think it is the lark we hear and to believe their declaration of “a new day” at Playmakers.

Duke Performances
Closed Sept. 29

Another kind of re-imagining recently took place in Smith Warehouse. The daring actor-director-teacher Jay O’Berski took on the task of theatrically recreating the famous jazz loft where photographer Eugene Smith hosted all kinds of writers, artists and musicians, including Thelonious Monk. Along with his Duke drama students, O’Berski attempted to give us a glimpse of that creative stew in Misterioso.

Billed as a cross between a happening and a pageant, Misterioso was not quite either. It was a valiant effort, and the actors must be commended for staying in character through the chaos. But it didn’t quite come offmore people were needed in the expansive space, and more musicians should have been jamming. There was a lot of pointless running around and shouting. The most interesting thing was that this fake event spawned some real connections and conversations. But, as a friend I hadn’t seen in years agreed, we could have shown the players quite a bit about creative partying.