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A swift and bittersweet ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Delaware Park

After a foggy and soggy false start on Thursday night, Shakespeare in Delaware Park opened its 40th season of free outdoor theater on Friday with a tale of two star-crossed lovers who appeared to have wandered out of the nearest Club Monaco and into one of the most heartbreaking tragedies of all time.

Tom Loughlin’s stylish, occasionally raunchy and often affecting production of “Romeo and Juliet,” costumed with requisite flair by Ken Shaw and designed by Nathan Elsener, wastes little time taking theatergoers straight into the brutal heart of Shakespeare’s baleful tale of summer-drenched sadness.

Trimmed judiciously to quicken the pace and to deliver an experience that only barely exceeds the play’s opening promise of “two-hours’ traffic” on the stage, this production initially draws out more of the play’s humor than you may remember from your ninth-grade English class. Later, it draws out more of the violence than you might recall.

Such are the attempts of Loughlin and his largely able cast, who amplify the inherent contradictions embedded in the play by adding a little too much extra sugar to its sweetest moments, a few too many extra tears to its saddest exchanges, and just the right amount of extra gall to its most vicious battles.

Jonas Barranca, in his grey cardigan and skintight white shirt, is the very picture of youthful yearning as Romeo. Few actors are so quickly able to establish their credibility through the mere act of sulking, but Barranca does with cool efficiency in his early exchanges with the manic Mercutio (Nick Gerwitz). Later, when his self-pity turns to romance and finally to rage, we’re mostly along for the ride.

As Juliet, Kathleen Denecke excels in moments of anger and righteousness, an authenticity sometimes less pronounced in her crucial romantic exchanges. Standout performances come as well from the immensely gifted Gerwitz as a kind of punk-inspired Mercutio, who in an inspired plot twist is involved in a booze-soaked love affair with Benvolio, played here with no double entendre unexploited by Marie Hasselback-Costa.

As Tybalt, Mary Beth Lacki shows off her consummate swordplay skills in fight scenes expertly choreographed by Steve Vaughan, bringing a welcome new dimension to a role traditionally played by men. And Peter Palmisano, as Lord Capulet and as usual, distinguishes himself during a scene in which he pronounces his utter disdain for a daughter that would dare to disobey his wishes. Fine performances also come from Eileen Dugan as Juliet’s long-winded nurse and Saul Elkin as the fatherly Friar Laurence.

The mark of any good production of “Romeo and Juliet” – indeed of any time-tested tale – is how completely it convinces the knowing audience that things might turn out differently this time. On Thursday night, that moment occurred for me exactly when it was supposed to: during the pivotal fight scene in which Romeo’s main man Mercutio falls to Tybalt’s sword.

Friday’s performance was more strained and tentative, for whatever unpredictable reason, and therefore a sense of grim inevitably hung over the whole affair. But this is sure to burn off like Thursday’s fog as the run progresses.

Still, to those who can abide the built-in distractions of outdoor theater – the 747 rumbling overhead, the circling gulls, the hits of the ’80s pouring over the hill from a nearby wedding reception – there’s nearly infinite beauty to be found from the space where Shakespeare’s poetry meets Frederick Law Olmsted’s design.

That beauty arises when Benvolio (Marie Costa) gazes out at the tree line, transforming the park’s shrubbery into the “grove of sycamore” wherein Romeo suffers in silent woe, and when Romeo glances up at the sky and compares Juliet to a “winged messenger of heaven” traversing the “lazy-pacing clouds” just as a gull flies overhead.

It is perhaps those moments, more than any individual performance, that make an annual visit to this important corner of Delaware Park such a summer fixture, and such an endlessly renewable pleasure.


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