William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” can still hold an audience after four centuries of productions, but it challenges directors to keep the telling fresh and engaging. Emily Ranii’s version for Burning Coal Theatre Company has many fine qualities, from striking staging and high energy to impressive precision and authentic youthfulness.
Jordan Jaked’s minimalist set of two central floor-to-ceiling ladders and one up to the theater’s second level allow actors to sit, swing and climb on them and to make them a bedroom, a balcony or a bier in an instant. Ed Intemann’s precisely focused, mood-setting lighting conjures a dreamlike world that Evan Prizant’s contemporary costumes in muted palettes enhance. Mikaela Saccoccio’s stylized choreography for fight scenes and lovers’ intimate moments furthers that atmosphere.
But this dream world is extremely active, in which every character bursts with energy and spirit. Ranii paces the play at a high pitch throughout, cleverly dovetailing changes of scene so there’s never a blank stage or dip in velocity. She also gets credit for the cast’s admirable enunciation and projection.
Ranii casts the young roles with age-appropriate actors. High school junior Emily Rose White gives Juliet winning innocence that hides a willful determination as she yearns for Joey Heyworth’s exuberant, confident Romeo. Joel Oramas’ jesterlike Mercutio and Will Sarratt’s menacing Tybalt keep the sparks flying. Even older characters are played younger, such as Erin Tito’s fast-talking, boisterous Nurse.
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But what gets lost in all the bustle and ebullience is real heart. The actors have been encouraged to vary their lines in the widest possible ways, making for extreme demonstrations of love, anger and grief that are technical feats, not believable expressions from within. Compounding the problem is the actors’ unrelenting loudness and intensity of delivery, often short-changing their lines’ poetry and subtlety (Jeff Aguiar’s forthright, clear-eyed Friar Laurence a welcome exception).
Still, the plot’s classic elements continue to have their effect, especially in the last few scenes, which push this cast past artifice into genuine emotion and a satisfying finale.