Romeo and Juliet from UpStage Theatre Ambitious But Flawed

The setup:

To open its 12th season, UpStage Theatre makes its first foray into the thicket of Shakespeare, with an ambitious production of Romeo and Juliet.

The execution:

Anna Yost as Juliet looks beautiful and virginal, and her looks, and poses, are sufficient to evoke some sympathy for the heroine's plight. But her voice is high, approaching shrill, and her usual expression is one of petulance. We fail to see the luminous spark of young love.

Young Romeo is played by 14-year-old Jacob Allen, who is handsome enough, and stalwart enough, to carry off the role, if that were all it required. But he strolls through the role without passion or fire, and delivers his lines flatly, without much reference to their meaning. The result is that there is a hole at the center of the play, where there should be a heart.

Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers is fortunately blessed with major roles other than those in the title, and director Sean K. Thompson has cast many of these well. In the major supporting role of Nurse, Jackie Lovell is wise, humorous and caring, and provides a powerful anchor to Shakespeare's genius. So does John J. Zipay, who creates a wholly human and interesting Friar Laurence, a key adviser to the lovers, who marries and plots with them.

Brian Heaton brings rollicking humor and exuberant, gifted body language to Mercutio, creating a vivid, memorable character. Equally memorable, but for the wrong reasons, is Mack Hays as Lord Capulet, apparently under the impression that the play is about him. His extravagant gestures and overly broad theatricality might better suit a vaudeville turn. Tyrrell Woolbert as Lady Capulet is restrained and elegant, and gives an interesting, nuanced performance.

Joseph Moore as Prince Escalus finds the authority in his voice and commanding mien, though he might be less stilted. Joshua A. Costea does very well as an apothecary, making the most of a bit part through gait, manner and timing. Lenvi Tennessee as Tybalt has a strong stage presence, perhaps too strong for ensemble acting.

The simple set, left over from the last inhabitant of Lambert Hall, La Fille du Régiment, serves quite well. Some costumes are opulent -- Lady Capulet's, and Juliet's when she is betrothed to Paris -- but more attention should be paid to details. Juliet's white satin nightgown had a ten-inch tail of black thread at the bottom hem following her across the stage, Friar Laurence's cassock needs a button instead of the 3-inch safety pin, and Romeo's pantaloons on the right leg wouldn't stay in his boot, creating a truly non-heroic look.

Most importantly, the rhythm of Shakespeare came and went. Prince Escalus's line "those who kill" needs the last word said with punch and meaning -- it ends the scene and cannot trail off. And even the simple "They stumble those who run" needs a slight pause after "stumble" for the rhythm, and for the meaning.

The direction in general was competent, though the dueling scenes were weak, and Romeo at one point entered to begin a new scene before the Capulets had exited from the last -- using the same entry. The verdict:

One of the great love stories of all time is portrayed with words but no passion, but strong performances in important supporting roles provide a taste of the brilliance of the Bard and his mastery of human relationships.

The show runs through October 22 at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-838-7191.