Theater review: Folger’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has a tough cookie for a heroine

(Teresa Wood) - Erin Weaver and Michael Goldsmith star in Folger Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet.

(Teresa Wood) - Erin Weaver and Michael Goldsmith star in Folger Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet.

“Shut . . . the . . . door!” Erin Weaver’s seething Juliet exclaims through clenched jaw, as she and Eric Hissom’s dazed Friar Lawrence hunker down to absorb the latest shock waves racing through the streets and hearts of fair Verona.

The line reverberates with uncharacteristic intensity in Folger Theatre’s slightly weird “Romeo and Juliet” — an erratic but not an uninteresting evening — because Weaver’s Juliet is not your average swooning teen. No, this Juliet is one tough cookie, and perhaps the production’s freshest idea. Bearing sturdy gaze, toned arms and Clark Kent glasses, Weaver projects a kind of superhero-level of self-assurance that makes firmly convincing the notion of Juliet leading smitten, goofy-grinning Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) around by the nose.

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Director Aaron Posner, whose fine Folger work has included a wry “Measure for Measure,” commedia-inflected “The Comedy of Errors” and sorcery-filled “Macbeth,” here takes on the saddest love story ever told and fiddles with it in ways that make it recognizably his. He’s been known to push his concepts too far at times: Witness his shtick-driven “The Taming of the Shrew” last year. On this occasion, the tinkering burns off some of the tragedy’s heat: Though Weaver’s Juliet has stature and Goldsmith’s Romeo a convincing earnestness, the bred-in-the-bone hatred between the Capulets and Montagues never materializes powerfully, and so the dangers facing the couple aren’t as apparent as they need to be, either.

It must be noted, however, that this director is such an enterprising steward of Shakespeare that even his odder impulses merit attention, and his more problematic forays deserve to be digested and discussed.

With this project, you imagine Posner thinking: “Look, you know this play and I know this play, so let’s try some new things.” This what-if approach should be a path to rediscovery, but in this case it hasn’t unleashed the play’s excitement. Then again, what version since Franco Zeffirelli’s peerless 1968 film has been able to lend definitive exuberance and dewiness to the tale’s ardor and sorrow? Certainly not the current gimmick-laden Broadway staging with Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad, one that replaces passion with doves and motorcycles and pillars of fire and levitating beds.

Posner’s effort is more worthy, even if its shortcomings also require cataloguing. Some of the tweaks are signatures, as in his skillful use of film-style scene cross-cutting. Others are downright jarring: Did you ever wonder, for instance, about Lady Montague’s bouts of suicidal depression or Lord Capulet’s tendency to strike women? Neither, one gathers, did Shakespeare. (Curiously, Brian Dykstra’s hyperdramatic Lord Capulet displays more hostility toward Shannon Koob’s graceful and unusually kindly Lady Capulet than he does toward Romeo.)

Despite the use of custom-made weaponry, the swordplay among Romeo, Tybalt (Rex Daugherty) and Mercutio (Brad Koed) provokes not a single thrill. And if the skeletal, 13-member cast imposes limits on what can be staged, some of the textual trims seem arbitrary. No sobering final oration from Prince Escalus? No riposte by Balthazar (Matthew McGee) to Romeo’s “For nothing can be ill, if she be well”? No scene, even, in which the Nurse (Sherri Edelen) discovers Juliet in her bedchamber in the drug-induced limbo that is mistaken for death?

Still, within the strictures of Posner’s design, a lively intelligence also reveals itself, typified by Meghan Raham’s sleekly abstract set, with illuminated drawings and chests filled with those mortal drugs embedded in the walls. Laree Lentz’s up-to-the-minute costumes — is Count Paris (Joe Mallon) emulating kids today and wearing pajama bottoms in public? — and the emotionally grounded performances from the likes of Hissom and Edelen offer added value. And most crucially, in the central relationship, you get a persuasive portrait of a complicated attraction, not one fermented in a vat of sugary bliss. Posner manipulates our first glimpse of the lovers — each engaged here in the solitary pastime of reading a book — so that for their fateful meeting at the Capulets’ ball, the notion has been planted that good looks are not all they have in common.

Goldsmith has a scruffy charm, of the kind possessed by that nice guy in AP English who all the smart girls like. (Although it should be noted that neither Goldsmith nor Weaver, who’s married to Posner, looks like a teenager.) The famous balcony scene is sweetly carried off: Weaver appears on the set’s upper level with a stuffed toy to which she delivers her “What’s Montague?” speech: “It is nor hand, nor foot/Nor arm, nor face . . .” Tellingly, Juliet tosses the toy away as she contemplates the young man she barely knows but will shortly wed.

Juliet’s casting off of girlhood is the evening’s thematic glue, for this “Romeo and Juliet” more emphatically identifies Juliet as the stronger, more decisive of the two than any production I’ve seen. This is a consequence of Weaver’s athletic presence and energetic assertiveness: You are reminded that it is Juliet, for example, who first brings up the subject of marriage. And it is Juliet who, in the afterglow of their only night together, determines that it is indeed the lark that is singing and so sends Romeo off.

Nothing feels quite as concretely worked out in this production as the super-fast growing up of Juliet. And while it’s not a long sit, you wait in vain for many of the other conceits to show a commensurate sharpness of vision.

Romeo and Juliet

By William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Set, Meghan Raham; costumes, Laree Lentz, music, Carla Kihlstedt; lighting, Jennifer Schriever; sound, Christopher Baine; fight direction, Casey Dean Kaleba. With Allen McCullough, Aaron Bliden, Michele Osherow. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Dec. 1 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Visit www.folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.

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