Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare

Through Nov.17

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Ave., Madison
973-408-5600, Shakespearenj.org

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

Miranda Rizzolo sparkles as a giggly, girlish Juliet, in “Romeo and Juliet” at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

She truly seems a little girl when we first meet her, all big eyes and eagerness around her mother’s suggestion of marriage.

Her infatuation with Romeo seems like a glorious crush gone right: it’s her party, and she’s wearing his ring, and all that.

Juliet is meant to be not quite 14, and Rizzolo pulls that off.

The opening tableau shows us the sad end of the play: the lovers, both dead in a tomb, with their sad parents and feuding families around them. (I really don’t think that’s a spoiler: the play is 424 years old.)

Hearing the prologue’s

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

with that image in the background, with sad strings (sound design by Fabian Obispo), wrenches the heart. It’s one of director Ian Belknap’s most effective touches, and it works again with a sucker-punch when we come to that tableau in real time, at the end.

If you have never seen the play, this is a solid introduction. 

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READ: THEATER REVIEW; ‘SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE’ MAY BREAK YOUR HEART

READ: THEATER REVIEW; AFFECTING ‘RAINMAKER’ AT STNJ

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But if you’ve seen it many times, the main reason to go is Rizzolo, and also, a surprisingly strong Friar Lawrence, in Matt Sullivan. His Friar is a revelation: a man caught betwixt and between, working for the best against terrible obstacles.

The story of two feuding families, the Capulets and Montagues, whose children fall secretly in love, marry, and then end up dead due to the feud and a series of misunderstandings has been filmed and adapted many times (“West Side Story,” 1961; Zeffirelli film, 1968; Baz Luhrmann’s version starring Leonardo DiCaprio, 1996). The thrill of young love and the futility of pointless hatred shine vividly in STNJ’s production.

Italian Renaissance costumes by Paul Canada adorn Lee Savage’s simple set, which features a colonnade.

Juliet
Mercutio (Joshua David Robinson) and Romeo (Keshav Moodliar) crash the Capulet party. COURTESY JOE GUERIN

Standout performances include Sullivan’s, as a friar trying to keep things together, comforting an impulsive Romeo (Keshav Moodliar) when things look bleak. After a secret marriage, Romeo gets in a fight and is banished. And Juliet is meant to marry someone else: only the friar knows that would mean bigamy and death to her soul.

She takes a sleeping potion to lie as if she’s dead, and of course the note letting Romeo know goes astray. When Romeo gets there, we end up with enough dead bodies in a tomb for a Game of Thrones outtake.

Aedin Moloney plays Juliet’s nurse, sometimes depicted as corrupt, as a chatty, loving, warm-hearted mother figure. Her ribaldry seems all in good fun, and she’s a joy whenever she’s onstage. Lord Capulet (Mark Elliot Wilson) shows concern as well as rage when Juliet defies him, and lets his paternal feelings show. Lady Capulet (Erin Partin) displays fire and dignity. Moodliar, by turns boyish, boasting and bewildered, makes for a gallant if sometimes bland Romeo. As Mercutio, Joshua David Robinson seems more class clown than poet. He’s energetic and inventive, but instead of hearing Mercutio’s gorgeous flights of fancy in Shakespeare’s words, one sometimes feels in the middle of a locker-room in-joke. 

The production never soars. 

For one thing, it looks a little low-budget: we can see Capulets and Montagues in priest robes in the interludes between scenes when monks come on and chant. It’s just strange that Juliet dances with her nurse and a servant at the ball; it’s clear there just aren’t enough actors, even with a cast of 20.

But even a non-soaring Shakespeare is still, after all, Shakespeare, and with some standout performances. When grieving father Capulet offers Montague his hand, shamed into making peace by the Prince and the bodies, you’ll still cry.

At least, I did.