There is no question that the violent and ugly family feuds breaking the peace in long-ago Verona parallel today’s urban street life, as excellently delineated in program notes by CMU dramaturg Isabel Smith-Bernstein and emphasized by Calvin Johnson’s very effective stage projections of graffiti- covered walls and grim buildings. Nor is this the first time for such an analogy, most famously personified in Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents in West Side Story. Wadsworth makes all that convincingly clear and his staging has the young people moving with as much energy and life as those choreographed to Leonard Bernstein’s music.
The famed balcony scene comes across superbly; each nuance of the young people’s feelings as much manifested in how they speak as it is in how they move. Adam Hagenbuch’s Romeo is full of innocence and bursting wonder which his body cannot contain by ever keeping still. Meanwhile, within the confines of her balcony, Grace Rao’s Juliet paces with equal delight and expressive joy. For me this was the highlight of the experience, its effect overshadowing every moment before and after. However the delivery of other wonderful words throughout the play often gets trammeled in the intensity, even if the intensity stays believable and the characters remain convincing.
Elsewhere Rao’s performance stays sweet and sincere, getting much meaning from the feelings behind the words. But Hagenbuch, always physically expressive, delivers most other speeches awkwardly, as if what he says does not come naturally.
Sairus Graham-Thille and Lachlan McKinney as Juliet’s father and Friar Laurence have believable vitality and a good sense of the characters, while Dylan Schwartz-Wallach gives much earnest integrity to the role of Benvolio.
Wadsworth has done some trimming and transposition of the text, for example cutting most of Friar Laurence’s foreshadowing speech about poisonous plants, or overlapping two separate later scenes or having the prologue serve as an epilogue. None of this does any harm.
He has come up with a visually, physically very alive production. But his student cast has not been given enough chance to discover and reveal the richness of the language which is as much a significant part of this play as the story.
Romeo and Juliet continues through May 4th at Philip Chosky Theater, Purnell Center for the Arts, on the CMU campus, Oakland. 412/268-2407. www.drama.cmu.edu