Two Star-Crosseds, One Star
Read the play? Watched Franco Zeffirelli’s popular take? Even the movie director Baz Luhrmann, whose fashion show version of “Romeo and Juliet,” the Bard’s most rhapsodic tragedy exacted at least a little human passion as it strutted assuredly down the runways of Verona. What has made this work tick, and survive the annals of modern drama, may seem obvious, but is nonetheless true: those words. Alter them, and you may get mixed results. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins found a mostly winning compromise by renovating the structure of the American theatre to come up with “West Side Story.” Remove them, regardless of the interpretation, what one comes away with is the unerring feeing that they’re witnessing a love story as generic as the cover of a romance novel wind-blown to pretty, twitty life. Gone are the subtleties that blossom out of Shakespeare’s thicketed poesy. The dimensions disintegrate from three to two. It takes a special production to reinvigorate a tale like this one, shaking dust off these archetypes to, if not find something entirely new in their motivations, give a reason to iterate the familiar again and again. The Washington Ballet made a convincing argument in favor of revival Saturday at the matinee performance of Artistic Director Septime Webre’s production. Everything wholly romantic and winning in the Washington Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet, ” can be summed up with two words: Laura Urgelles.
It’s not that she was the only thing of beauty to be found in Webre’s luxuriant pageant of commedia dell’arte and coloratura tragedy. But her presence meant the difference between physical attraction and love at first sight. Urgelles is a delicate young dancer, slight and wispy. But she possesses histrionic savvy, prodigious professionalism and a stage presence whose incandescence requires no spotlight. Rather, she seems to shine from within. As Juliet, she found the corners of the character sketch, and hung tightly onto them, translating emotions into motions, and miraculously keeping the part’s voice intact.
She brought to mind the downy Olivia Hussey, Zeffirelli’s hand-picked heroine, weaving a gossamer sadness into even her blissfully ignorant scenes (before she meets her soul mate) that crescendoed into a sweetness tinged with the kind of bitterness that settles when something seems too good to be true (after she’s met, and subsequently fallen in love with him), then deepened into a fragile melancholy (upon discovering her love’s dead body laid out before her).
She also lent a persistent girlish quality that made her forced maturity (she grows up quickly, deeming herself ready for marriage and later capable of ending her own life) feel strange and unnatural but wise and probable. Taking into account the impracticality imbued into the schematic of the character, that Urgelles found a way to present Juliet’s dualism so persuasively was what made her performance gripping.
By contrast, on Thursday the tall, hearty Michele Jimenez brought a different quality to Juliet. Hers was a super-heroine, not a dainty flower. It was difficult to imagine the star-crossed girl even needing a lover, let alone pining after one on her poster bed, like a teenager staring at a picture of a very different era’s Leonardo of repute. The problem was that her raw, exotic allure seemed to have been polished to a flavorless durability. That there was little connection between her and her Romeo, played by Runqiao Du, was disheartening. That it seemed like she was the one who would be wearing the pants (or tights, in this case) made it a matter of serious miscasting. It was telling that the two had more chemistry when either or both played dead alongside the other. This was not entirely Jimenez’s fault. Du didn’t offer her much passion to begin with.
But then, both Romeos were less persuasive than their paramours. Thursday night, Du was unable to shake the rigid, lackadaisical persona of a bored but abiding man at his wife’s costume party. (Perhaps it was the stiff, leathery outfit he wore most of the time.) He played Tybalt during the matinee, so the distant chill of his portrayal was put to surprisingly effective use (his death scene, in particular, demonstrated a robotic, reptilian relentlessness, like a snake with its head cut off that still roils around, or the Terminator, from the films of the same name, that pursued its victims with vacant precision).
Saturday, Alvaro Palau was Romeo, and he demonstrated the opposite problem: he was all heart, but less resilience. His dancing looked like work much of the time, and his audibly deep breathing after jetes distracted from the mood, especially when contrasted with the vibrant Jason Hartley (as Romeo’s friend, Mercutio) execute the same steps, but with effortless élan.
Hartley’s was the smartest interpretation of a character in the entire production. As written, Mercutio is flamboyant, a preternatural drunkard, and perhaps gay. Luhrmann picked up on this idea and made the character a drag queen in his movie. Shakespeare historian and essayist Gil Harris also has written on the subject of Mercutio as the anti-female life partner of Romeo. And Hartley (aided by Webre’s suggestive choreography) turned the ballet variation into a Puckish, though sexually eclectic, stud. He peeped under the skirt of Juliet’s Nurse, only to sit her atop his shoulders, creating a hybrid man-woman character onstage. He kissed members of both sexes (for reasons innocent and plot-furthering, provocative and untoward). Hartley never made the audience uncomfortable, nor did he overstep his bounds as a performer (though it was difficult to notice anyone else when he was dancing). His was a keen, challenging depiction, one that enriched his individual scenes and the ballet on the whole.
But it was Laura Urgelles who made an impression so moving and tiered as to become indelible. She was soft, she was strong, she was a beacon whose radiance made the Washington Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet” a success not of the highest order, but still one for the record books. In this production, let it be known, a star was born.