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"Romeo and Juliet" Opens Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival, With Passion, Forbidden Love and Tragedy Under the Stars

Donald Gilpin

"It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden, too like the lightning, which doth cease to be ere one can say 'It lightens,'" Juliet warns Romeo after they exchange their first vows of love. And soon afterwards, from Friar Laurence, Romeo receives another warning, similar in its dramatic imagery and urgency: "These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die, like fire and powder, which as they kiss consume."

But Romeo and Juliet would not be the legendary lovers they are, and the play Romeo and Juliet would not be, as Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom describes it, "the largest and most persuasive celebration of romantic love in Western literature," if the characters heeded these dire admonitions. The very nature and intensity of their passion give the play its appeal and power, undiminished over four centuries, and make it impossible for Romeo and Juliet to do other than self-destruct in their devotion to each other. A combination of bad luck, feckless adult influences, and mocking, impetuous friends, along with their own youthful excess and naiveté, speed them on their tragic trajectory.

Romeo and Juliet, written in 1595 when the Bard was 31–before the great tragedies and around the period of Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream and many of the great sonnets, offers additional attractions in its colorful array of characters of all dispositions, ages and social classes; in its action-packed, suspenseful plot set against the backdrop of a bitter feud between the powerful Capulet and Montague families; and in its abundance of strikingly beautiful poetry.

But it is the "star-crossed lovers" who take center stage to provide the heart of this popular masterpiece, and Princeton Rep Company's current production, at Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheatre through June 27, is well served with two appealing, energetic and talented young performers in the title roles.

Nicol Zanzarella's Juliet and Johnny Giacalone's Romeo charm the audience as readily as they charm each other in this polished, professional production, expertly staged by Tom Rowan, who directed last summer's The Comedy of Errors for the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival. A certain teen-aged exuberance characterizes the production throughout, but nowhere is it more evident than in Mr. Giacalone and Ms. Zanzarella's athletic, expressive and lucid portrayal of the lovesick duo.

From Romeo's first glimpse of Juliet ("Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!") at her father's party, to their shyness and first kiss, Juliet's realization that Romeo's family and her family are dire enemies, through the balcony scene and their first declarations of love for each other ("My bounty," says Juliet, "is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite."), their secret marriage, Romeo's banishment and their final ill-fated encounter, the two performers are engaging, heart-warming and radiant in communicating their passions, their frustrations, their despair, and their love. The fact that Mr. Giacalone and Ms. Zanzarella are engaged to be married, in real life, in September may help to account for the excellent romantic chemistry here.

Tim J. Amrhein's abstract symmetrical set design–a hexagonal stage with scaffolding in metal, three sliding doors for entrances upstage center, stairs leading to platforms stage right (the balcony) and stage left, benches down left and right and an array of rectangles and circles throughout the set–helps Mr. Rowan to stage the action smoothly, with adept support from Rob Lazar's lighting design. This minimalist setting, emulating the functional simplicity of Shakespeare's Elizabethan theater, compels the audience's imagination and compliance, as locations shift frequently throughout the play. The design overall suggests a certain timeless modernity, rejecting the temptation to set the action in a particular time and place. The lake and trees of the Pettoranello Gardens add an appropriately beautiful background to the proceedings.

Mr. Rowan has assembled a strong cast of sixteen New York actors. Gaius Charles is a captivatingly volatile and loquacious Mercutio, Romeo's bawdy friend who cannot resist a fight with the "fiery" Tybalt (Campbell Bridges). Donald Kimmel is particularly sympathetic, articulate and concerned as Friar Laurence, trying in vain to offer Romeo and Juliet the advice and assistance they need to escape their doom.

Less effective is Janice Orlandi as Juliet's meddling nurse. Ms. Orlandi does provide humorous moments and a valuable counterpoint to Juliet's romantic innocence, but at times she simply tries too hard with too many histrionics that strain credibility.

Phillip Clark presents a convincing Lord Capulet, played with a southern gentlemanly sort of swagger, while Mr. Bridges, Gabriel Vaughan as Romeo's cousin Benvolio, Kenrick Burkholder as Juliet's suitor Paris, Kate Hall as Juliet's troubled mother, Joe Fellman as the Prince of Verona, Adam Alexander as Romeo's, servant and Walker Lewis in a deft comic turn as the nurse's servant all lend solid support.

The dazzling fighting and swordplay, choreographed by Rod Kinter and featuring Mr. Charles, Mr. Bridges, Mr. Vaughan, Mr. Giacalone, and others, is vigorous, convincing, and exciting to watch.

Mr. Rowan has directed with a sure and sensitive touch, moving the drama along through multiple scenes at a brisk pace to its dramatic conclusion. A couple of stylized bits with golden masks during the introduction and again at the final tableau seem unnecessary and a bit pretentious, but Mr. Rowan has all the essential ingredients in place here. What this production needs most is some summer weather. Temperatures above the fifties and a moratorium on the rain would certainly help to encourage local audiences.

The Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival, in its tenth year, continues to prevail over geese, passing aircraft, cicadas, inclement weather, and many other daunting challenges to fulfill its mission in delivering vibrant, high quality, free-of-charge theater for the enrichment and enjoyment of the central New Jersey community. And if the hot-blooded adolescent passions of Romeo and Juliet are not your style, you can come back July 15-August 8 for Beatrice and Benedick's more mature and intellectual look at the idiosyncrasies of true love in Much Ado About Nothing, Princeton Rep's second offering of the summer.

Princeton Rep's Romeo and Juliet runs for two more weekends, Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m at Pettoranello Gardens, Route 206 and Mountain Avenue in Princeton. Tickets are free, but donations are encouraged. For more information call (609) 921-3682 or visit PrincetonRep.org.

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