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Stage Review

Tinkering injures ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Lenox production tweaks fall short

In “Romeo and Juliet,’’ Susannah Millonzi (Juliet) plays a party scene. In “Romeo and Juliet,’’ Susannah Millonzi (Juliet) plays a party scene. (Kevin Sprague)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / July 19, 2011

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LENOX - In her fairly faithful rendering of “Romeo and Juliet’’ for Shakespeare & Company, director Daniela Varon makes a number of critical interventions, some of which - mirroring the machinations of the young lovers and their enablers, Juliet’s nurse and Friar Laurence - do not work out for the best.

It’s a great idea, for instance, to set the action in some indeterminate time, neither medieval nor Elizabethan nor contemporary (though Shakespeare’s age-specific language, of course, has its own ideas on that score). Costume designer Kiki Smith (no relation to the famous sculptor of that name) follows through on the concept with classicist outfits spanning several centuries, in a palette of white and beige for everyday, festive Technicolor for the party where the kids first clap eyes on each other - “kids’’ being a relative term here.

As Romeo, David Gelles (who can boast substantial off-Broadway credits) appears achingly young: barely shaving age, with feet and hands he has yet to grow into, and a voice still given to uncertain quavers. His instant inamorata ought to be younger than he by a year or two (the script specifies that she is not yet 14); Susannah Millonzi appears a good decade more mature.

Nor is this your typical blushing maiden of a Juliet. She’s a jock. We first see her in fencing garb, skirmishing with her cousin Tybalt (handsome, dreadlocked Equiano Mosieri), whose rapier will all too soon be taking down Romeo’s compulsively punning best bud, Mercutio (antic Kevin O’Donnell, who leaves no obscurely obscene reference unmimed). The main problem with Millonzi’s Juliet, beyond age, is that she is too sportily gung-ho: Her galumphing, all-American enthusiasm soon wears.

What’s worse, Varon seems to let the furniture call the shots in two key scenes. She and set designer Sandra Goldmark decided on a plain set, bare but for a smattering of Shaker furniture, a couple of chairs and benches. So instead of a balcony scene (which the two-tiered stage would easily permit), we get a chair scene: Juliet lobbing her compliments out toward the audience as Romeo sits - passively sits! - right in front of her, not only within easy earshot but directly within reach (she seems poised to give him a shoulder massage). The intended mood of painful separation and desperate longing, a universal among young lovers, flies right out the window.

And instead of a tomb scene, we get a visual out of “Our Town.’’ Putting those handsome benches to dubious use, the dead (newly slain Tybalt) and faux-dead (Juliet, still under the effect of the knockout potion provided by the friar) sit erect. “Here lies Juliet,’’ mourns Romeo, when clearly she is doing nothing of the sort. Soon enough, he will pull off a comparable trick. Having downed the fatal dram, Romeo will - once he is placed upright by the repentant friar (solid Walton Wilson) - achieve instant rigor mortis.

Silliness of this sort all but sinks a production buoyed by phenomenal performances on the part of supporting players. Starla Benford’s nurse is nonpareil: earthy, compelling, unflaggingly real. Malcolm Ingram commits so fully to Lord Capulet’s fury over Juliet’s refusal to wed Paris (attentive dream-date Wolfe Coleman) that one cannot help empathizing to some degree. And Kelley Curran gives Juliet’s mother a story all her own.

Lady Capulet is too inhibited, too proper, to broach the notion of marriage without calling upon the Nurse, Juliet’s de facto, hands-on parent, for moral support. Later, when Juliet impulsively gives her mother a hug, Curran lights up in amazement, letting us see the noblewoman’s fierce latent affection for her headstrong girl. You might even catch a glint of envious admiration there.

Sandy MacDonald can be reached at sandy@sandymacdonald.com.

ROMEO AND JULIET Play by William Shakespeare

Directed by: Daniela Varon. Set, Sandra Goldmark. Costumes, Kiki Smith. Lights, Les Dickert. Composer and sound designer, Scott Killian. Choreography, Susan Dibble.

Presented by Shakespeare & Company. At: Founders’ Theatre, Lenox. Through Sept. 3. Tickets: $15-$65. 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org