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'Romeo and Juliet' blends the poetic and visceral

Jules Becker | 8/22/2012, 10:48 a.m.
Actors Lauren Eliot (Juliet) and Johnnie McQuarley (Romeo) in Happy Medium’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.” The play runs through August 25 at Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.

If you think young love and family feuds are easy to stage, think again.

An energetic young company named Happy Medium Theatre is trying its hand at what may be Shakespeare’s most romantic and arguably saddest play, “Romeo and Juliet.”

The best news about the well-intentioned attempt at the Boston Center for the Arts is Johnnie McQuarley’s highly impassioned portrayal of Romeo and Arthur Waldstein’s very caring confidant Friar Laurence.

The bad news is that Happy Medium’s “Romeo and Juliet” often alternates between inspired and lackluster.

This inconsistency is all the more disappointing given that Paula Plum is directing. One of Boston’s best actresses, Plum brought fire and vulnerability to Cleopatra in the recent Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Anthony and Cleopatra.”

Plum certainly understands character motivations and cross-purposes as well as the great themes of a play as poetic and visceral as “Romeo and Juliet.”

Not surprisingly, the opening sparring between members of the feuding Capulet and Montague families is vivid — credit fight choreographer Angie Jepson — and properly suggestive. After all, the young characters are teenagers embracing their adolescent yearnings for love and physical intimacy.

William Schuller is notably cocky as a Capulet (and later unforgettable as the poor apothecary who sells Romeo the poison).

Much of what makes “Romeo and Juliet” distinctive and especially moving is Shakespeare’s poetic development of those yearnings and his unflinching depiction of adults who oppose the dreams and desires of their children.

After all, the Capulets want their daughter Juliet to marry an affluent catch, namely  the County (Count) Paris. Juliet and her true love, Romeo, son of the Montagues, know that their families will not approve of a union between them. In this production, the fact that McQuarley is African American adds a welcome subtext of discrimination to the opposition of the Capulets to Romeo.  

The governing Prince, in this production a Princess, means to separate the couple by banishing Romeo. Romeo has killed Capulet cousin Tybalt, who has killed Romeo’s good friend Mercutio. Kiki Samko brings remarkable strength to the Princess and impressive dancing skills at the Capulet ball, where Romeo and Juliet first meet.

Even Friar Laurence, who always wants the best for both Romeo and Juliet, is ultimately stymied by his fear that the Capulets and the Prince may think he has done something wrong. Veteran actress Sharon Squires, who ought to be seen in more Hub productions, brings understated majesty to Montague.

Whenever McQuarley and Waldstein are onstage, the pleasures and pains of young love and the vulnerability of human aspirations are very much alive.

McQuarley catches all of Romeo’s big-heartedness and adolescent energy as well as his loyalty to friend Mercutio. He makes Romeo’s rhapsodizing about Juliet fresh and engaging.

Lauren Elias as Juliet starts out with enthusiasm but could be more emotionally expressive as her life with Romeo is in jeopardy. Waldstein supplies that kind of rich expression in counseling Romeo and in trying to help him and Juliet. When Friar Laurence despairs for them and regrets not having done more, especially to save Juliet from suicide, audiences will believe him.

There are other performances that have some credibility. Mikey DiLoreto is convincingly steadfast to Romeo as his cousin Benvolio and suggests a gay subtext in his unusual attention to Romeo.

Joey C. Pelletier displays flair as Mercutio but needs to make the character’s signature Queen Mab speech crisper. Michael Underhill has the right sneering nastiness as Capulet troublemaker Tybalt, and Jesse Wood finds Paris’ dash. June Kfoury brings fine caring and concern to nanny-like Nurse.

Happy Medium’s “Romeo and Juliet” may not be as radiant as its title heroine, but McQuarley’s exciting work as Romeo and Waldstein’s touching performance as Friar Laurence alone make this a solid end-of-summer choice.