Taking a leap on a classic

It was to be expected that Bill Rauch, as director, would stage a decidedly different version of "Romeo and Juliet" in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor theatre. And last Sunday we were able to witness the "interpretative leap" he took in placing the older generation of the Montagues and Capulets in the Italian Renaissance and the younger characters in contemporary Italy.

To achieve this distinction, costume designer Shigeru Yaji has a field day, richly garbing the elder members while dressing the young counterparts in a black blazer with striped tie to accentuate their youth. And at one point some of the cast appear as members of an Italian soccer team in white shorts, gaily-colored tunics, and variegated socks (and they do kick a soccer ball around a bit). Another stunner comes when the young Montagues crash the Capulet masque in wild attire suggestive of a cartoon. Some viewers may be horrified and protest that one doesn't play ball with Shakespeare. Rauch, though, has the courage of his convictions; he merely wants to see "moving and muscular work" whatever the period the interpreters select.

The present OSF production, the twelfth since 1935, gains much from scenic designer Christopher Acebo's resourceful use of the Elizabethan stage with its balconies, windows, and trap door. It enables him to conduct two scenes in different locations simultaneously. The trap door becomes Juliet's chambers or Friar Laurence's cell. On entering the theatre, one's attention is drawn center stage to two beautiful burnished wood caskets adorned with gold and set side by side - a solemn reminder that the play is about death, not just of the ill-fated Romeo and Juliet, but also of Mercutio, Tybalt and Paris.

I might have preferred a more traditional take, such as that of Franco Zeffirelli in his 1960 Old Vic controversial production that I happened to see when it came later to the Orpheum in downtown Los Angeles. The enduring memory is not of John Stride and Judi Dench as the young lovers, but of the sensational settings and atmosphere and tingling swordplay.

Well, Rauch has a light-hearted and laughable romp early on when the Montague gardener (Todd Bjurstrom) clashes with two of Capulet's employees - Gregory (Richard Howard), a servant and Samson (Mark Peterson), a cook. But the real set-to comes later when the Montagues and Capulets have at it in a dazzling display. And who but Rauch would have dared to yellow-tape the tomb at play's end?

It is good to welcome Dan Donohue back as the quick-witted Mercutio, "a saucy merchant full of ropery" and friendly goader of Romeo. He was last seen as Mark Anthony in OSF's 2002 "Julius Caesar." And what a delight are Demetra Pittman as Juliet's never speechless nurse and Julie Oda as Prudence, the nurse's petite and perky maid. The articulate Mark Murphy is a pillar of strength as Friar Laurence, to whom both Romeo and Juliet turn in their need.

John Tufts (Romeo) and Christine Albright (Juliet) played together touchingly in OSF's "Up" last year. It seemed a natural to cast them as the ill-fated lovers in Shakespeare's play. They do not disappoint but exude a youthful ardor - they look so young - that is beguiling and believable, even to their one night of love, rudely cut short by the break of day and the approach of her mother bringing news that Juliet is to marry Paris (Rafael Untalan), a young nobleman and kinsman of Prince Escalus (Josiah Phillips).

It is noteworthy that this production is part of "Shakespeare for a New Generation," a national theatre initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with Arts Midwest.

One of the most powerful themes in literature &

an enemy loved &

is the essence of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," with the action occurring in Verona and Mantua and born of the lifelong feud between the Montagues and Capulets. All in all, I applaud Rauch. He succeeds in what he set out to do, but I acknowledge that there will be playgoers who beg to differ. It plays through Oct. 5.

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