We all know the story. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy and girl commit ritual suicide.
Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare's most-performed cautionary tale, a spectacle of adolescent angst that no new generation can resist modernizing (as in Baz Luhrmann's slick 1996 love letter to handguns and Hawaiian shirts). So kudos to director Eric Rosen for staging the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's production of the tragedy in a revolutionary new way: keeping it in Verona in the midst of the Italian Renaissance.
Rosen stays true to the source, and this Romeo and Juliet feels like a consciously crafted effort to restore a classic. The throwback treatment starts before the Prologue is under way, as actors perform a fight call and mill about the stage in full view of the audience. It's a gentle reminder that metatheater didn't start with Brecht; Shakespeare's works are rife with glib self-references, and the Rep's preshow throat-clearing helps ease us into the impending "two hours' traffic of our stage."
The opening and closing speeches are performed by Theodore Swetz, and the UMKC Theatre professor gives a fine, confident performance as Friar Lawrence. The language presents a hurdle for some of the Rep's other performers, however, and clarity seems occasionally sacrificed to momentum.
As the lovers, Courtney Salvage and Jamie Dufault are competent, capturing the stubborn pride and volatile passions of youth. Salvage's Juliet is even a little weird, and her physical energy and comic timing in Act 1 are sharp. The second half of the play is tougher on both actors, though; grief here receives a less nuanced treatment than lust or levity.
Cheryl Weaver, as Lady Capulet, makes that character's impassioned speech following Tybalt's death one of the production's most affecting. As Capulet, David Castellani fortifies another memorable scene during a cruel spat with his daughter. Zachary Andrews is a swaggering Mercutio, and Antonio Glass plays the Prince with a comic-tinged resignation that mirrors our own frustrations. Lord, what fools these nobles be.
The full ensemble is solid, but it's the breathtaking behind-the-scenes work that elevates the Rep's R&J to lavish new heights. Fight director John Wilson choreographs gritty sequences of nail-biting swordplay, and Victor En Yu Tan's versatile lights create ominous silhouettes and shadows against sometimes blazing colors. The costumes are just as rich, with excellent work by designers Lauren Gaston and Lindsay W. Davis.
Jack Magaw's scenic design, however, is the technical star of the show, providing a series of stately meditations on the arch. Magaw relies heavily on the fly system to whisk enormous set pieces on and off. It takes precision to time these complex cues, and production stage manager Mary R. Honour is nearly unerring in her calling of the show. (Rep powers-that-be: Buy this woman a drink.)
The final crypt scene unites these design elements into a striking blend of sorrow and stagecraft. The full cast sways in the shadows around Juliet, and the walls seem to swell and subside as though breathing. The shuttered lights frame only the lovers and the cavernous proscenium arch, lending the scene a memorable starkness. If the tableau falters, it does so only in the inclusion of the slain Mercutio and Tybalt, stalking the scene as specters. (We get it: It's like they're still all around us.) But we can excuse the cliché as another reminder among many truisms evident in Rosen and the Rep's successful Shakespeare reanimation: "Violent delights have violent ends."