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Bawdy Bard 

Romeo and Juliet an affable debut for the Bon Vivant

At risk of pre-emptive plot disclosure, allow me to warn you that TheatreWorks' production of William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet ends badly. This "love" issue that receives so much attention in popular music, women's magazines and films starring Kate Hudson -- who knew it could inspire youngsters to acts of such extreme impracticality? Parental noncompliance, sword fighting, suicidal ideation, and worst of all: sudden public outbursts of overwrought poetry.

Be glad that today's adolescents are restrained by the stringent requirements of college admission. I mean, slaying the clan enemy hardly gives the impression of a willingness to accommodate campus diversity.

In any event, TheatreWorks has decided to inaugurate its new Bon Vivant Theater with Shakespeare's most famous tragedy. Its fading stone-walled Verona is silhouetted by a backdrop of stars. It's a lovely touch to a black box theater that's less claustrophobic than the company's previous residence but without sacrificing the former's intimacy.

Founding director Murray Ross has done a remarkable job of assembling talent, most notably the show's indisputable thief: Khris Lewin as Mercutio, homie to Romeo and master of a phallus-happy brand of lewd panache. Lewin deftly manages both his role as an instigator as well as some demanding sword (or in his case broomstick) fight scenes. It's too bad he could not be resurrected for the third act as he offers a much-needed dose of levity.

Ross points out in his director's note that R&J is easily Shakespeare's bawdiest play, chock-full of not so thinly veiled cock humor. It hardly qualifies as family entertainment even if its devotion to the overwhelming stuff of first love is most relevant to a young audience. The opening remarks by respective Montague and Capulet loyalists consist largely of misogynist fantasies of what each will do to the women of the opposing house.

A few quips: Shakespeare's players are often required to burst into fits of near apoplectic merriment. Recall the opening of Kenneth Brannagh's 1993 film Much Ado About Nothing, where the entire cast suddenly comes down with a frolicking epidemic. I know, I know, it's Shakespeare and the weight of the canon demands I accept it on its own terms, but rarely have I seen it done convincingly. The same goes here, with the Montague posse led by a stately Benvolio (Michael Cherrie) lapsing into a forced gaiety.

Romeo, played with energy and a convincing rage by Jesse Bonnell, spends too much time with his back to the audience. Similarly, the blocking often feels quite congested with the cast either consigned to a small portion of the stage or jammed up during high-density scenes like Capulet's feast.

Couple Shakespeare's inclination toward redundancy with the fact that R&J has been told in so many different ways and the net result is a lot of pressure on the leads. What can they bring to a story whose ending we know far too well?

Sarah Bousquet's doll-like Juliet is less intoxicating than merely contained. At times she swoons, her head careening to the point of a bobble-head doll. Though never descending into ditsiness, she doesn't bring new life to the role. Unfortunately, in certain situations competency won't cut it. The chemistry between her and Bonnell is not nearly as inspired as that between Mercutio and his own bawdiness.

Speaking of bawdiness, I couldn't help but wonder how these young lovers would behave in contemporary romantic forums. For instance, how would Romeo manage the brazen hussies of Elimidate? What kind of profile would Juliet leave on

www.match.com? Barely legal heiress seeks effusive, marriage-minded teen into soliloquizing, balconies and suicide pacts.

Hmmm, it beats likes children and animals.

Actually, I think our own fractured community is ripe for a reinterpreted R&J. It could feature a patchouli-stankin Juliet from the crystal-worshipping House of Manitou and an Explorer-driving, New Life-attending Romeo from the House of Briargate. Theyd meet at an abortion protest, their love subverting the New Age evangelical divide.

Itd surely be a plague on both our houses

-- John Dicker

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