Lawrence Toppman

Review: Star-crossed lovers blaze in Spoleto’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Tybalt (Matt Doherty, center) triggers the ire of Capulet (Steven Elder) by refusing to behave at a party crashed by Romeo and his pals in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Tybalt (Matt Doherty, center) triggers the ire of Capulet (Steven Elder) by refusing to behave at a party crashed by Romeo and his pals in “Romeo and Juliet.” Helena Miscioscia

Few companies treat the Holy City as a provincial town during Spoleto Festival USA, but Shakespeare’s Globe does with “Romeo and Juliet.”

Directors Dominic Drumgoole and Tim Hoare give us the sort of stripped-down show that might have toured England a hundred years ago: eight actors in multiple parts, a text cut to avoid crowd scenes, a single set that looks like a stout-pillared arbor with a roof on which actors can walk.

The play shoots past with an urgency I’ve never seen before, almost living up to the “two hours’ traffic of our stage” promised in the prologue. The production reflects the compressed nature of the action – it takes place over five days – and the flaring and flaming out of love. The directors take a cue from Friar Laurence: “These violent delights have violent ends/ And in their triumph die, like fire and powder/ Which, as they kiss, consume.”

Drumgoole and Hoare make two choices that confused the audience at Dock Street Theatre. The casting requires actors to change parts in front of the audience or suddenly reappear with a cape or hat to indicate a different personality. The guy playing Mercutio dies, gets dragged off and pops in wearing a cloak as the Prince; one man asked aloud, “Mercutio’s alive?”

More to the point, they take parts of scenes out of chronological order, overlapping them. This makes us feel things are happening simultaneously around Verona, but it also interrupts certain narratives that have to be picked up again.

Actors distinguish among their roles with accents or physical behavior: Matt Doherty is a bluntly rash Tybalt, a kindly and almost shy Paris, a weary Old Montague (well, we can pretend he’s old) and a goofy, lumbering servant to the Nurse.

Most have one important chore: Sarah Higgins’ Scottish nurse overshadows her other work, as do Steven Elder’s volcanic Capulet and Steffan Donnelly’s Mick Jagger-like Mercutio.

Samuel Valentine and Cassie Layton convinced me for the first time in almost 50 years (since Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film) that I was watching high school-age kids in the central parts.

He’s articulate and ardent but has a teenager’s rashness and anxieties about self-image. (He doesn’t approach her in the balcony scene at first because he’s afraid of a brushoff.) She shrieks and jumps with joy at learning her boyfriend wants to marry her and dissolves in tears more than once, and you see the woman-to-be inside the girl.

Why all actors have multiple tattoos, I couldn’t say. Why the show begins and ends with boisterous, gypsy-like songs, I don’t know, unless that device gathered villagers around stages on tours in 1920. But none of that matters when the poetry gets spoken with such clarity and intensity.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Romeo and Juliet’

Shakespeare’s Globe performs the tragedy at Dock Street Theatre through June 7 as part of Spoleto Festival USA. Tickets cost $25-80. Details: 843-579-3100 or spoletousa.org.

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