“Romeo and Juliet” isn’t pretty.
Shakespeare’s saga of tragic teenage love is no candy-colored summer romance that just happens to end badly. It’s an awesome--and awful--reflection on an entire society in Daniel Sullivan’s dark and majestic interpretation at the Old Globe Theatre’s outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.
This production may attract attention in part because of its male star’s celebrity. Judging from his credits in the program, it’s Neil Patrick Harris’ Shakespearean debut. Somehow, he must have managed to take classical training in between episodes of “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and performances of “Rent,” for he handles the language and the physical demands of the role with casual confidence. That includes a lot of nimble shimmying between two levels of the stage and kissing Juliet for the first time while locked into the top of a pull-up.
His square jaw and wide forehead over relatively small eyes help set him apart from the pack of other young men in Verona, which is appropriate for his loner stance at the beginning of the play. But his eyes wake up under the spell of Emily Bergl’s Juliet and flash during his verbal sparring with Scott Parkinson’s Mercutio. He reaches galvanizing heights of passion during his scene in which Friar Lawrence (Richard Easton) informs him of his exile.
Bergl, whose program credits are similarly devoid of previous Shakespearean roles, is equally masterful, assisted by some thoughtful stagecraft. Sullivan has the nurse (Katherine McGrath) bathe Juliet in her first scene. While the nurse recalls her earlier weaning of the child, and Juliet’s mother (Lynnda Ferguson) tries to discuss a potential marriage, the mostly hidden nudity of Juliet (behind a towel) is an apt way to dramatize the bridge between the baby and the woman.
This Juliet grows up quickly. Bergl vividly suggests her initial amazement over her sudden love and her ultimate maturity in making the decisions that result in her tragedy. Sullivan gives this Juliet a particularly savvy move when she returns to her home after accepting the potion that will allow her to feign death: She drops the fateful bottle while chatting with her parents but covers her tracks by quickly picking it up and wordlessly using it to daub her face, as if she’s trying out a perfume in anticipation of her wedding day.
The entire cast is strong, but it’s not the performances that make this “Romeo” especially memorable--it’s the look.
The costumes tell us we’re still in the Renaissance. However, the bright blond buzz cut on James Joseph O’Neill’s ferocious Tybalt briefly suggests otherwise, and then there is Ralph Funicello’s stark set.
This looks like a place that’s decaying, not flowering. A wall is crumbling on stage right. There are no decorative flourishes--the plain wooden floors that make up the two levels of the stage serve many purposes, including the famous balcony scene. Tall, bare timbers line three sides of the stage. Some of these old beams lean precariously as if they’re about to topple. One of them holds up an old wagon wheel that no longer serves any purpose; no one is clearing away this society’s junk --and that includes its atavistic feuds as well as its material detritus. Mist rises from the ruins.
(The only jarring intrusion on Funicello’s concept, visible only from certain seats, is an occasional, surreal glimpse of the lighted cars of the San Diego Zoo’s sky ride floating in the distance during the first act. Something should be done about that.)
The first round of music at the Capulets’ ball--clanging, thumping rhythms from composer David Van Tieghem--conveys the sound of a harsh, primitive culture. Choreographer Bonnie Johnston reinforces that impression with a wildly martial, ritualistic dance that becomes brazenly carnal.
After the fury has been spent, however, as the shocked and bereaved community gathers in the burial vault to witness the carnage, Sullivan’s blocking and Peter Maradudin’s richly textured lighting design create a tableau that’s worthy of a Dutch Renaissance master--a perfect visualization of the stillness necessary for contemplation of the larger themes of the play. The lustrous lighting helps restore a semblance of humanity to the wasteland.
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* “Romeo and Juliet,” Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays to Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 10. $23-$39. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 3 hours.
Neil Patrick Harris: Romeo
Emily Bergl: Juliet
Richard Easton: Friar Lawrence
Lynnda Ferguson: Lady Capulet
Mike Genovese: Capulet
Katherine McGrath: Nurse
Jonathan McMurtry: Montague
Rosina Reynolds: Lady Montague
James Joseph O’Neill: Tybalt
Scott Parkinson: Mercutio
Peter Smith: Benvolio
Rob Nagle: Escalus, Apothecary
Scott Ferrara: Paris, Sampson
James Wallert: Peter
An Old Globe Theatre production of William Shakespeare’s play. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Sets by Ralph Funicello. Costumes by Robert Morgan. Lighting by Peter Maradudin. Music by David Van Tieghem. Dramaturgy by Dakin Matthews. Fight direction by Steve Rankin. Choreography by Bonnie Johnston. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Stage manager Joel Rosen.