George Hampe and Lily Santiago in the Huntington Theatre Company's "Romeo and Juliet." Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Romeo and Juliet

Ed Tapper READ TIME: 2 MIN.

The most universally popular of Shakespeare's plays, "Romeo and Juliet" has been the inspiration for numerous, subsequent stage-works, everything from grand operas and ballets to Broadway musicals. The tragic tale of ill-fated lovers from feuding families is timeless, and therefore lends itself well to updating. Conceived far before such contemporary retellings were fashionable, the 1957 musical "West Side Story" placed the basic story amid the ethnic unrest in 1950's, inner-city Manhattan. Since that time, the play itself has been set during a variety of periods. Currently, the Huntington Theatre Company is presenting Shakespeare's classic in a stylish updated production which succeeds on a many levels, but falls short in others.

The scenic designs and costumes of Huntington's "Romeo..." were visually engaging, and strongly suggested contemporary society. Shakespeare's drama is powerful enough to work against almost any imaginable setting or d�cor---even mirrored disco balls during the Capulet party. However many liberties, such as inflections and gestures from modern American speech, were employed by the director in an effort to "modernize" the script. Sadly, Hip-Hop Shakespeare is definitely an acquired taste. Many of these touches were used for misplaced, comic effects, which only distracted from the beauty of moments like the famous Balcony Scene.

Though the youthful cast was talented and energetic, the Shakespearian idiom is not one to be adequately essayed without sufficient training, and a thorough experience in, and understanding of the style. Many of the voices were inadequate. There was a great deal of screaming out of lines, which, in a small theater, became annoying. In an effort to be conversational, much of the dialogue was delivered at a very fast clip, and, without adequate diction, was completely unintelligible.

George Hampe is obviously a gifted actor, but his reading of the role of Romeo was over-inflected and oddly stilted. This made for a more neurotic than heroic Romeo. In his defense, this may well have been the fault of the director. Lily Santiago was a lovely Juliet. Although her voice falls short of the Shakespearian standard, she gave an impassioned and sympathetic performance. Of the lesser roles, Nancy E. Carroll was the standout as Juliet's nurse, and Will Lyman made an authoritative Friar Lawrence.

Considering the above mentioned faults, the curtain for the first half of the play proved a welcome relief. Yet as soon as it rose again after the intermission, all the nonsense had remarkably vanished. The creative staff allowed the work to run as the playwright intended, without any self-conscious embellishments; and, for the rest of the performance, Shakespeare's tragedy was given the reverence it deserved. Santiago, Hampe and the entire cast were far more committed in the final two acts; and by the closing tomb scene, had moved the audience to audible weeping. The final set was particularly atmospheric, with Juliet resting on an illuminated bier.

The Huntington's "Romeo and Juliet" runs through March 31. If you like your Shakespeare on the funkier side, you will appreciate the concept. If not, you can just linger over dinner, but don't miss the second half!

"Romeo and Juliet" continues through March 31 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Huntington Theatre website.

by Ed Tapper

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