Mark Lamos is a masterful arranger of actors. His stagings can telegraph relationships and power struggles as well as any bursts of dialogue. Lamos' production of "Romeo and Juliet," at Westport Country Playhouse is clear and resonant.
But it's also not what we're used to. It plays out in a traditional manner, but it's a new interpretation, delivered subtly without bludgeoning, and not alway successfully.
Only minutes into this "Romeo and Juliet" there are three simultaneous swordfights happening. That makes it sound wilder than it really is. The decorous battles suggest a constant atmosphere of dispute and disrespect.
Yet this is a carefully arranged, steadily paced, well-organized production. Most of the scenes have two or three characters tightly gathered in the center of the stage. If others are around, they hover in the background, away from the main action.
Michael Yeargan's set provides only the necessities — a balcony and a bed or two — but it is not simple. The back wall changes from a glaring white screen to a elaborate re-creation of a 14th century al fresco painting by Lorenzetti titled "The Allegory of Good Government." Notes in the playbill explains that the painting "depicts the aspiration for peaceful civil rule during a time of turbulent, even violent, politics in many Italian city-states.
The production is smooth and acessible, its culture of violence and oppression easily grasped. But the precious interpersonal core of the show is undone by the performance of one of its stars, Nicole Rodenburg as Juliet. She strenuously avoids any sense of vulnerability or youthful indiscretion. The intention is obviously strength and resolve, but the execution is weak. For his part, James Cusati-Moyer as Romeo isn't entirely credible in his protestations of undying love. He sounds more like a politician hedging his bets.
It seems to be an open question whether Lamos and the actors want us to believe that these two teens (who look years older) are truly, madly, deeply in love. It almost doesn't matter, since the show continually shifts to the behavior of the adults.
In this "Romeo and Juliet," Romeo and Juliet are removed from each other far more than they are together. There is not a time when Romeo climbs the balcony to be closer to his Juliet. Their clinches and cuddles are coy, not tight or sexy. (Rodenburg does wear a filmy nightgown for a couple of scenes, but as you can easily see her modern-styled underwear underneath it, it's more of a mood-breaking distraction than anything else. Romeo seems sexier, brooding in his low-cut chest-bearing tunic.)
So many "Romeo and Juliet" productions are fueled by the unrestrained passions of its title lovers. This one is charged by the anger of their parents. As Juliet's father, Triney Sandoval (who explored generational and gender differences theatrically with Lamos with the all-male "The Taming of the Shrew" at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2003) begins the play as a gregarious, open-hearted host of a fancy party, but in the second act he's screaming at Juliet to do his bidding. He could be more even-tempered, but chooses to show us the extremes of the character. Likewise, when his wife Lady Capulet (Alison Cimmet) demands justice after the slaying of Tybalt (Dave Register), she snarls the request as if ordering underlings about.
Such wild behaviors are maneuevered, with much wailing and handwringing, by Felicity Jones Latta as Nurse and Peter Francis James as Friar Laurence.
Jones was seen last season at The Bushnell as the mother in the national tour of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" and has distinguished herself at Connecticut stages over the last two decades in such diverse offerings as "Children of Paradise" and "The Master Builder" at Yale Rep, "Cymbeline" at Hartford Stage and "The Diary of Anne Frank" at Westport. Lamos has directed her in Arthur Miller's "Broken Glass" and Frank Wedekind's "Lulu" and knows how to challenge her. Jones is brilliant at emotional breakdowns, but she's also very funny here, accessing the same cackling comic voice she found as Baba Yaga in "The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls" at Yale Rep.
As for Peter Francis James, I still remember the tremulous Mr. Peabody-cartoon voice he adopted as the doctor in the premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks' "Venus" at Yale Rep in 1996. The accomplished off Broadway actor takes a darker tone here, a furious anguish. There are sections were Friar Laurence is simply explaining the chain of events that led to the play's tragic conclusion. James delivers these as if shaming the town.
I can't remember when I've seen a "Romeo and Juliet" that could so easily be retitled "Nurse and Friar." Or one that took so little advantage of the natural acrobatic nature of its younger actors. Or one that is so angry without being action-packed. I'm still fighting with myself about whether I enjoyed it.
ROMEO AND JULIET — by William Shakespeare, directed by Mark Lamos — plays through Nov. 19 at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $70. A "Bringing the Bard to Life" symposium is Nov. 12 after the 3 p.m. matinee, and is free.203-227-4177 and westportplayhouse.org