Friday, March 7, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Preview

Rep's 'Romeo and Juliet' cranks up the heat

Seattle Times theater critic

Theater preview

"Romeo and Juliet," begins previews Monday and opens March 17 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center ($10-$46, 206-443-2222).

Most of us who catch Seattle Repertory Theatre's new production of "Romeo and Juliet" will know the whole story before taking our seats:

A) Boy meets girl at a party he crashes.

B) Boy and girl fall madly in love despite family disapproval.

C) Boy and girl wed secretly, share a magical night together, but are pulled apart by social pressures, bad timing, teen homicide and meddling adults.

D) Fearing permanent separation, boy and girl commit suicide.

So if we all know the score, what keeps Shakespeare's 400-year-old tragedy of "star-crossed" young love on the Top 10 list of revived classics? ("Romeo and Juliet" also just opened a long run at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.). And why does each staging feel somehow brand new, even if you've seen the play a dozen times already?

One could rightly point to the ravishing poetry and fire radiating from some of Shakespeare's most celebrated verse. Or the sadly eternal relevance of its theme of toxic family feuding that poisons subsequent generations.

But let's get to the nitty gritty of the play's appeal: love and sex. And it's up to the actors playing Romeo and Juliet to generate the romantic heat needed to fuel the tale — and make sure its emotional temperature rises to blazing.

Seattle Rep artistic director Sharon Ott, who is staging the tragedy on the Rep's Bagley Wright Theatre mainstage, concurs. "You have to believe in the physical and sexual chemistry of this couple," she says.

"But you also have to believe in them individually, because they have separate patterns of growth and change that they pursue separately. They both grow up during the play, and you have to see that."

Ott says she's not yet encountered "definitive" portrayals of Romeo and Juliet on stage or screen, and many Bardophiles would agree.

On screen more than stage, the balance in the pairing frequently seems off: in Baz Luhrmann's jazzed-up, 1996 hit film treatment of "R&J," for instance, Claire Danes' luminous, articulate Juliet contrasted with Leonardo DiCaprio's verse-fumbling, low-affect Romeo.

Another popular coupling, of Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Franco Zeffirelli's sumptuous 1968 movie of "Romeo and Juliet," brought to the screen two gorgeous youths. But both ultimately seemed vapid and wan next to the cast of full-bodied British classical veterans supporting them.

And Hollywood's 1936 celluloid "Romeo and Juliet" really missed the mark. By casting the 35-year-old Norma Shearer as adolescent Juliet, and an uncomfortable looking, middle-aged Leslie Howard as her teenaged Romeo, it dashed credibility from the get-go.

When casting the roles at the Rep, Ott smacked up against the age-old problem many directors have faced: where to find well-honed performers who can, as Ott puts it, "get all those words out of their mouths" while projecting impetuous, dewy-faced youth and dawning maturity? (In Shakespeare's Old Globe company, the roles were both played by adolescent boys steeped in Elizabethan stage techniques.)

"You didn't want a mopey little flower to play Juliet," Ott opines. "And you didn't want Romeo to be a wishy-washy kid. I wanted someone with a lot of macho bravura in the part."

Ott thinks she has found him in James Ginty — a 21-year-old, Juilliard School-trained actor who is such a newcomer, playing the Rep's Romeo is his first professional stage gig.

"I sat through 35 auditions for Romeo, and no one came through with that guy-guy thing but James," Ott declares. "He tore up the room and projected a virile, masculine energy."

Ott went a tad older for Juliet with Cynthia Boorujy, a more experienced thespian in her mid-20s with Off Broadway credits. "Cynthia has a dignity about her and a sense of inner stillness that seems profoundly critical to me. She's very petite, but also the kind of nice big, strong voice you need for the Bagley Wright (Theatre)."

Shakespeare's text is, of course, filled with other memorable characters — most to be handled at the Rep by seasoned Seattle actors. Ted D'Arms returns to the stage after a long hiatus to play Friar Lawrence, Laura Kenny is Juliet's nurse, Suzanne Bouchard is Juliet's mother Lady Capulet, Hans Altwies is Tybalt. Tom Story, an East Coast actor, plays the dashing character Mercutio.

Though the production employs costumes and sets suggestive of the Renaissance and other historical periods, Ott notes that she's "trying to take a modern point of view on the story. Without pointing specifically to Bosnia or Palestine, we want to remind people that there are various places in the world where this kind of tribal conflict between families and ethnic groups still exists, and where feuds take on a violent, breakneck life of their own."

But the director also realizes "Romeo and Juliet" gets its propulsion from the dramatic ardor of the star-crossed lovers. "Look, it's all about them," she says. "That's what it is with young love. They have to be at the center of the play's universe, to make the rest of it come alive."

Misha Berson:


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