Shakespeare wrote ROMEO AND JULIET when he was in his late twenties—old enough to know that the dripping professions of early-stage teenage love were not representative of lasting, mature companionship. Quintessence Theatre Group’s fast-paced production focuses on the naive love-rush of its famous couple. In the eyes of director Alexander Burns, their doomed romance is not the fault of the stars, their parents, the priest’s undelivered letter, or their warring clans. Love like that never stood a chance.
As with any Shakespeare production, this is heavily edited. The opening fight scene (“I bite my thumb at you”) is cut, so the rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets is communicated only in piecemeal. Romeo’s parents are dropped from the play (except for a late introduction in the post-death denouement). In this staging, these are mere details. Quickly we come to the lovers’ meeting, and here our focus rests, surviving edits and aided by inventive rearrangement.
Most interestingly, Burns interweaves several scenes, so Romeo (Connor Hammond) and Benvolio (Jahzeer Terrell) talking about Rosalind (“out of her favor”) runs concurrently with Paris (Sean Close) asking Capulet (Gregory Isaac) to consent to his daughter’s hand in marriage (“younger than her are happy mothers made”) and Lady Capulet (Anita Holland) telling Juliet (Emiley Kiser) about this proposed match (“It is an honor that I dream not of”). Later, the judgment of the Prince (Alan Brincks) after Romeo slays Tybalt (“banished”), flows into Romeo’s distress at his punishment (“do not say banishment”) and Juliet’s woe when the same news reaches her.
The device works admirably, tying together language and plot and allowing for clever interplay between normally offstage characters. Less successful is the decision to distract from the morning bed scene (“it was the nightingale, not the lark”) by conjoining it with Capulet and Paris arranging the latter’s marriage to Juliet (“what say you to Thursday?”). With the focus of the production squarely on the leading couple, it is unfortunate to rob this scene of its intimacy. It is also unfortunate that despite fine line delivery and confidence with Shakespeare’s language, Hammond and Kiser never conjure convincing chemistry in their interaction as the fated couple. Despite their professions, they never seem attracted to one another.
Stronger are their scenes with the supporting stars of Quintessence’s production: E. Ashley Izard as a nurturing and smart Nurse and Josh Carpenter as a caring and thoughtful Friar Laurence. In some stagings, the missteps of these confidents can appear as the cause of the couple’s downfall. Here, their maturity stands in contrast to the teenagers’ naivete.
Each character demonstrates understanding and comfort with Shakespeare’s delicious text, and Burns keeps the play moving briskly. Video projections and multi-screen scene titles contribute to an accessible contemporary production. Modern costumes (Jane Casanave) only inform the characters; the undefined contemporary setting doesn’t distract.
But the focus on language and youthful energy comes at the expense of the pathos in the plot itself. The pivotal death of Mercutio (Alan Brincks) is given much less space than the proceeding fight scene (choreography by Ian Rose). We skip over the Friar’s discovery that his letters telling Romeo of Juliet’s fake death have not been delivered. Romeo and Juliet’s deaths are poetic, but not quite tragic.
[Quintessence Theatre Group, 7137 Germantown Avenue] September 30-November 7, 2015; quintessencetheatre.org.