A New Old Love

On the Stage

Romeo and Juliet By William Shakespeare Directed by Eric Ronis At the Kronauer Space, Adams House Through May 3

BEGINNING WITH THE cacophony of two ghetto blasters simultaneously playing different hard rock songs, the joint North House-Adams House production of Romeo and Juliet repeatedly delights the audience with an innovative presentation of the world's most famous love story.

As the actors help the audience adapt to the matresses which provide most of the seating, the stage directions are called out, and the quarrelling between the Montagues and Capulets begins. Most of the action takes place in the outer arms of the V-shaped Kronauer space; areas within and above the crowd are also used, ensuring that the audience never feels left out.

Audience involvement is a recurring theme in this production. Director Eric Ronis invites the audience to dance with the players during the Capulet's party, to take marriage vows with the young couple, and to follow Romeo into the Capulet tomb at the end of the play.

Time and again Ronis mixes the old and the new, the expected and the unexpected. For example, the duels, which in many productions are played with phony rapiers, are here done by arming each actor with a pair of hard-wood blocks. They clap these blocks together without hitting each other, creating a rhythmic swordfight that is near deafening in the acoustically alive theater.

The cast is generally excellent, though there is a tendency for the young lovers to be upstaged by their entertaining entourage. Chad Raphael plays Romeo with tremendous sensitivity: he elegantly balances the lover's helplessness and determination, without letting either get the better of his character. It is thus pleasantly surprising to find Peter Becker's Mercutio outdoing his friend Romeo at times. Becker's performance is especially physical; he hangs from the ceiling while teasing Romeo about his romantic affliction, and is twice as good as many of the earth-bound actors who have played the same part. Mercutio's energy and wit instantly engage the audience whenever Becker walks on-stage.

Juliet (Kristen Gasser) does fine when alone, but tends to pale when appearing on stage with the Nurse (Caroline Bicks) or with her father, Lord Capulet (Christian Kanuth).

The distribution of certain other parts, however, leaves something to be desired: Becker also plays Paris, friend of the house of Capulet, and favored by Lord Capulet for the hand of Juliet. There simply is no need for this. The problem is that Becker is too good as Mercutio; no sooner does Paris appear on stage than the audience wishes he were Mercutio once again.

The double-duty casting doesn't stop here. Lord Capulet and Tybalt are both played by Kanuth. At least these two are on the same side of the feud. Kanuth is excellent as "the fiery Tybalt," but Lord Capulet comes across as perhaps just a bit too fiery in this production.

The double casting of Friar Lawrence and Prince Escalus presents less of a problem. Jeffrey Korn plays both; his low, reassuring, measured tone of voice as the Friar is easilv distinguishable from the more urgent tenor he gives to the Prince. But these two characters do not relate to the plot and to each other the way the other double-cast characters do.

In the Capulet clan, Caroline Bicks threatens to steal the show as the Nurse. Her ceaseless babbling and uncultured mannerisms are as amusing as they are skillfully executed. Her gesticulation, when not bordering on mugging, is equally entertaining.

The costumes are not Elizabethan, but rather more like Adams House, circa 1986. It is perhaps for this reason that such things as the playing of "Freak Out" over a ghetto blaster at the Capulet's party doesn't seem incongruous.

This is definitely a show worth seeing; but get there early and sit on one of the chairs: the novelty of sitting on an overcrowded mattress can wear off after two and a half hours.