The "Romeo and Juliet" that opened Sunday at the Folger Theatre is gripping and painful -- wild with youthful frenzy yet mature in its dissection of tragic events. The production begins at the end, with actors gathering to ritually cleanse pools of blood off the stage. We know how this one winds up; what matters to director PJ Paparelli is how it happened -- how everything veered so badly out of control.
It's a documentarian's view, one Paparelli likely acquired as he researched "Columbinus," a drama about the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado that will premiere this March at the Round House Theatre. Paparelli's "Romeo and Juliet" unfolds like a careful re-creation of a crime; the multi-actor Chorus offers community testimony, and a small projection over the stage provides the tick-tock of chronological information -- "Two Hours Later," "30 Minutes Before Dawn," etc.
The youthful energy of Graham Hamilton and Nicole Lowrance helps propel the Folger production.
(Photos Carol Pratt -- Folger Theatre)
It's astonishing how much feeling Paparelli can evoke in the first few moments of a show. (He managed the trick for "Corpus Christi" a few years back, too.) Shortly after he establishes his mournful, empathetic, earnest tone he shocks you with the tender age of some of the participants. The Capulet ruffians who first strut the stage look like mere middle-schoolers, and Nicole Lowrance is one of those rare Juliets who's a plausible 14, an age that has her mother reporting on suitors, her father fielding proposals, and her doting Nurse reminiscing. Gene Gillette's Tybalt and Michael Urie's Mercutio, the baddest bad boys of the feuding Capulets and Montagues, look somewhat older -- Gillette, in particular, has the bearing of a new military recruit -- but the raw energy of youth is inescapable.
Not that this is a shrill, puling modernization in tattoos and denim. Paprelli preserves a classical tone, from the swords and daggers to Miranda Hoffman's timeless costumes. (Her general scheme is simple loose gowns for the women, tights, pants and billowing white shirts for the men.) Tony Cisek's set almost leaves the Folger's Elizabethan Stage as is, only attaching scaffolding to a good deal of the existing architecture, even on the face of half the balcony. Actors scamper high and low, sometimes in battle, sometimes just out of sheer ebullience. The theater is a hive of hormone-driven activity, and the performance has the high keen of teenage anguish.
The young actors hurl themselves into Shakespeare's passionate language as if it were a dangerous but seductive current, and it's pretty much a white-water ride all the way. That results in a certain amount of huffing and puffing, but the far greater effect is one of roller-coaster emotions, the unchecked peaks and valleys of kids slamming against the grown-up world.
As Romeo, Graham Hamilton often crosses the line between deeply wrought and overwrought, but it's hard to fault him for, say, the all-out rant he delivers when Romeo is banished for slaughtering the ever-goading Tybalt. "Thy wild acts denote the unreasonable fury of a beast," says the Friar to Romeo, and in this production the comment is exactly right. Lowrance isn't any less restrained; her tightly wound affection and distress as Juliet are consistently persuasive.
But the performance that best captures how the show works is Urie's. As Mercutio, Romeo's swaggering motormouth friend, Urie seems trapped in a world of wannabe cool. He's louder and more physical than his friends, so he's easily their top dog, but he's also manic and excessive, like an insecure kid who shows off to fit in. There is an awkwardness to the performance that isn't always clearly intentional, that makes you wonder whether Urie is too unseasoned for this large, dashing role. But his relentless lewdness and rudeness ultimately create a portrait not just of an unfortunate loudmouth who gets beaten up by bullies but of a worrisomely troubled kid.
The adults who surround this cauldron of youth are all played with command, down to a very small, very funny turn by James Konicek as a dry, disapproving Capulet servant. The Friar, who acts as the lovers' well-meaning go-between, is compassionate and moving in Edward Gero's hands. Nancy Robinette corners like a sports car as the nattering Nurse swerves from comedy to dismay. As Juliet's parents, Andrew Long and Julie-Ann Elliot brilliantly depict an imploding family.
Beauties in the staging include a flashlight scene at the ball (with formal yet lively choreography by Septime Webre) and violence that is almost always sudden and impressively unhinged. (Paul Dennhardt is the fight director.) The show flattens out a little by the end -- we know what's coming, of course, and it's tough to sustain a fever pitch for three hours. But this familiar tale is never rote or rarefied, and it's uncommonly saturated in tragic feeling.
Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by PJ Paparelli. Lighting design, Dan Covey; composer/sound, Fabian Obispo. With Miles Butler, Christopher Luggiero, Bobby Booth Kogan, Matthew Schneck, Tyee Tilghman, Craig Wallace, John Lescault, Ian Lockhart, Michael Leibenluft, Saskia de Vries and Kate Siegelbaum. Approximately three hours. Through Feb. 20 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.