Of woe well waxed, and life that wanes too soon

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(c) Liz Lauren

Juliet (Joy Farmer-Clary) discovers Romeo (Jeff Lillico) at her balcony in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s "Romeo and Juliet."

Review: Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet"
at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

The rewards of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet” are substantial, and they take the viewer to rare levels of energy, insight and humanity in what is arguably the most devastating of Shakespeare’s plays.

Yet almost as imposing are the problems in this production, which steadily loses focus through the second half, with Ariel Shafir’s bravura Mercurio removed from the picture and Joy Farmer-Clary’s exquisite Juliet unmatched by Jeff Lillico’s monochromatic Romeo.

Australian director Gale Edwards’ intensely physical and hilariously bawdy approach, in a modern setting, begins with a bang as the Sharks and the Jets – oops, sorry, the warring Montagues and Capulets — spring into view in the backstreet prospect of a deep-thrust stage.

Surveying Brian Sidney Bembridge’s severe, contemporary urban set – complete with blinking construction barriers — I did half expect an opening flourish of Leonard Bernstein’s music with Riff bounding onto the stage and the other leaping Jets close behind.

But any concern about confusion with “West Side Story” was blasted from mind as Edwards’ opposing factions strutted into view, rapiers at the ready and challenging each other in Shakespearean language made to sound effortlessly vernacular.

And then, pow, swords are out and clashing like you’ve never seen. Fighting director Rick Sordelet should get a special award for the show’s brilliant and harrowing swordplay. That electric virtuosity only increases in the later combat between Mercutio and Tybalt (a worthily swaggering and petulant Zach Appelman).

Edwards’ notion of the warring houses as something like two mafia families, both dominated by willful men, resonates in several scenes. The most stunning instance finds old Capulet (the burly John Judd) forcibly bringing Tybalt to his knees when the kid wants to dispatch Romeo instantly at the dance in Capulet’s home.

That display of spleen and violence neatly sets up Capulet’s outburst at Juliet when she, by then secretly married to Romeo, defies her father’s instructions to marry the eminently eligible Paris. It’s a chilling confrontation, and Judd’s enraged Capulet seems fully capable of throwing the girl into the street right then and there.

We’re also the sadder for Farmer-Clary’s Juliet because in her thrilling discovery of love, in her vulnerability and in her radiant expression of newfound bliss, she has won us over utterly.

What makes Farmer-Clary’s girlish charm so infectious is her consummate mastery of Shakespeare’s poetry. This Juliet recites nothing, exudes all. Juliet is not yet 14 years old. Life and the world lie before her, and suddenly in this amazing young man she has found the key to both. The bubbly transport Farmer-Clary brings to the balcony scene, this moment of confession and vow, is an unalloyed delight.

Lillico’s fair and gentle Romeo looks the part of a lad who might steal a girl’s heart on sight. And like the object of his passion, Lillico delivers Shakespeare’s intoxicated lines with impeccable clarity. Yet one listens in vain for the heart behind the sentiment. Lillico has the rhythm down, the measured emphasis and the articulation. The impulse, the ardor, the madness are missing.

Those are the very strengths of Shafir’s magnetic Mercutio, as expansive and devilish a portrayal as one might hope to see. This Mercutio is a winsome rascal, self-assured, proud and a swordsman to be reckoned with. His death leaves a void in the production.

Indeed, Edwards’ troupe seemed to lose its spark in the tale’s dark winding down. Despite smart and funny performances by Ora Jones as Juliet’s nurse and David Lively as Friar Laurence, the collective momentum slowed through a final tomb scene that lacked a genuine edge of tragedy. And without that last full measure of poignancy, the play’s still-vital warning goes unsounded.

Through Nov. 21. www.chicagoshakes.com. Call (312) 595-5600.

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.