When Artistic Director of Theater Emory Jan Akers told my THEA 120 class that Theater Emory had never produced Romeo & Juliet in its 34-year history, I was surprised — but shouldn’t have been. After all, a lesson I learned as a figure skating fan was not to mess with classics — that when a piece of music has reached iconic status, you do not touch it, unless you can bring genuine freshness to make it your own. Any attempt to portray a tragedy can quickly become one if execution is even slightly lacking.
Imagine my delight to find that Theater Emory’s adaptation, which runs Nov. 3-13 in the Mary Gray Munroe Theater under Associate Professor of Theater Studies John Ammerman’s nuanced direction, avoided these pitfalls with stunning dexterity.
An intentional aesthetic thoughtfulness is evident before the first line is even uttered. The set is modeled after an enormous marble chessboard, portending two warring factions. The gorgeous opening tableau — a ghostly, ethereal vision of the young lovers entwined together behind sheer white curtains — is later recomposed at the play’s dénouement. And cladding the Capulets in fiery shades of reds and oranges and the Montagues in cool blues invokes the subtle, lovely image of College junior Cameron Frostbaum’s Romeo and College sophomore Toni Gentry’s Juliet existing as yin and yang when they exchange handkerchiefs.
Indeed, no small detail is overlooked in bringing Renaissance Verona to life — from effective period music and sound effects accenting transitions between scenes to the whimsical, charming choreography at the masquerade ball. Romeo & Juliet, I realized, is the original romantic comedy; just as modern society (okay, fine, or a certain very single Wheel reviewer) nurses a romanticized fantasy of beautiful, witty boys approaching us in coffeeshops and bookstores, I am confident this scene, centuries ago, must have made viewers long to meet an anonymous suitor at a masked dance.
Though carried by an undoubtedly talented cast — the endearing, multifaceted performances of equity actress Deadra Moore as Nurse and Atlanta-based actor Dan Reichard as Friar Laurence were highlights — Ammerman did well to coax strong acting out of difficult scenes. Yet another week or two of rehearsal would have allowed these performances to coalesce and develop further; too often actions felt scripted and disjointed, like the jarringly forced laughter during the Montague boys’ “locker room talk” that appears from nowhere then abruptly vanishes, as though the actors were reminding themselves to exhibit mirth.
Ultimately, it is the eponymous lovers to whom the show belongs. Frostbaum looks and acts every part the gallant Romeo, constantly clutching at his breast in his perennial heartsickness and displaying feral masculinity during combat scenes; indeed, I wholly empathized with Juliet’s unshakeable infatuation with him over four days after experiencing it myself in a mere three hours. But it is Gentry who is an addictive delight to watch. She brings a lush interpretation of charm, humor, intelligence, curiosity and lust to her role, never squandering an opportunity to tell a story with her eyes, as though divulging a deeply personal secret with the audience. The scene in which she momentarily believes Romeo has died offers a formidable tour de force of expressing despair and sorrow.
Yet for how often the word “love” is declared, I found myself wanting more intimacy from history’s most passionate love story, rather than simply mischievous flirtation. The proclamatory nature of their delivery, in lieu of a quieter, more introspective approach, borders on exhibitionism and stifles the genuine chemistry the two had begun to kindle. Moreover, the blocking was often spread too far apart physically for actors to convey believable connections with one another.
There is inherent danger in tackling a piece in which juxtaposing the first and second acts emphasizes such a stark dichotomy. The cast expresses grief more convincingly than they do comedy, and the dazzlingly sunny backdrop feels inappropriate as the play’s events begin to grow somber. Nevertheless, the production’s pacing does an exquisite job of building up tension and hope; although we know how the story will inexorably end, we still find ourselves desperately hoping for a different outcome.
Theater Emory creates its strongest work when it strays from the approach of being avant garde for being avant garde’s sake, and instead returns to the same fundamentals of great theater — direction, acting, costuming and set design — that made the 1968 film so successful. In taking on a classic which, counterintuitively, has become a risk in and of itself, Romeo & Juliet comes tantalizingly close to brilliance. And with its second week to come, it may well reach it.